U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Zinke Caught Raising Political Funds During Taxpayer-Funded Trips

Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, who is being investigated for his use of private planes on the taxpayer dime, is under fresh scrutiny for "mixing political gatherings ... during official business."

According to Interior travel records and other documents seen by POLITICO, the secretary has met with GOP donors and political groups more than a half-dozen times while on taxpayer-funded department trips, including a local Republican Party fundraiser in the U.S. Virgin Islands where donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photo-op with Zinke.

"Ethics watchdogs say Zinke is combining politics with his Interior duties so frequently that he risks tripping over the prohibitions against using government resources for partisan activity," POLITCO reports.

Zinke's trips do not appear to break the law. For instance, his visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands from March 30 to April 1 was an official trip related to the Interior Dept.'s role overseeing the U.S. territory.

But House Democrats criticized the secretary in a letter sent Tuesday that stated that Zinke's travels "give the appearance that you are mixing political gatherings and personal destinations with official business."

Zinke has spent about $20,000 on three charter flights since taking office in March but has dismissed the criticisms as "a little B.S."

Meanwhile, the former Montana Congressman has also been on blast by whistleblower Joel Clement, a senior official at the Interior Dept. The climate change expert, who was reassigned by Zinke to a completely unrelated office that oversees fees and royalty checks from oil and gas companies, has resigned from his position.

In a resignation letter shared with the Huffington Post, he called out Zinke and President Donald Trump for their "poor leadership."

"Retaliating against civil servants for raising health and safety concerns is unlawful, but there are many items to add to your resume of failure," Clement wrote to Zinke.

Those failures include "muzzling scientists and policy experts," an "arbitrary and sloppy review of our treasured National Monuments," targeting an Obama-era conservation plan for the greater sage grouse, and compromising tribal sovereignty.

"Secretary Zinke, your agenda profoundly undermines the [Interior Department's] mission and betrays the American people," he wrote.

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