Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent more than $14,000 on government helicopters this summer to take himself and staff to and from official events near Washington, D.C., in order to accommodate his attendance at a swearing-in ceremony for his replacement in Congress and a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, according to previously undisclosed official travel documents.
The travel logs, released to POLITICO via a Freedom of Information Act request, show Zinke using taxpayer-funded vehicles from the U.S. Park Police to help accommodate his political events schedule.
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In a case detailed in the new documents, Zinke ordered a U.S. Park Police helicopter to take him and his chief of staff, Scott Hommel, to an emergency management exercise in Shepherdstown, W.Va., on June 21.
Zinke’s staff justified the $8,000 flight by saying official business would prevent him leaving Washington before 2 p.m., too late to make the two-hour drive to the exercise, according to the documents.
The event that prevented Zinke from leaving before 2 p.m. was the swearing-in ceremony for Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), according to Zinke’s official Interior calendar. Gianforte, who won a special election for Zinke’s old seat in May after assaulting a reporter, contributed along with his wife $15,800 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns.
“Secretary Zinke’s last engagement in Washington D.C. is at 2 p.m.,” an Interior staffer wrote as justification for using the helicopter. “Driving to [the West Virginia event] would not enable him to be on time and fully participate as scheduled.”
An Interior spokeswoman did not immediately reply to questions Thursday.
Zinke also ordered a Park Police helicopter to fly him and another Interior official to and from Yorktown, Va., on July 7 in order to be back in Washington in time for a 4 p.m. horseback ride with Pence. The trip cost about $6,250, according to the documents.
While in Yorktown, Zinke completed a walking tour of the local Revolutionary War battlefield and attended a boating industry roundtable discussion, according to the documents. The day before the trip, an Interior trip planner added to the schedule a 30-minute flyover of an area where Dominion Energy is building high-voltage electric transmission lines to run across the James River.
Interior officials originally estimated that driving to Yorktown would take about three hours, although one noted that “there is a major construction project on I-64, which will slow things down.”
In an email to Interior travel scheduler Tim Nigborowicz, an Interior employee justified Zinke’s using the helicopter instead of less expensive method by saying “the Secretary will be able to familiarize himself with the in-flight capabilities of an aircraft he is in charge of” and that the Park Police staff on board would “provide an added measure of security to the Secretary during his travel.”
The former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL is already being investigated by the Interior Department’s Inspector General and the independent Office of Special Counsel for his mixing of official travel and political events. Interior earlier this year released records documenting Zinke’s use of charter and military aircraft, including a $12,000 flight from Las Vegas to Montana that allowed him to give a speech for a hockey team owned by a major campaign donor.