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Zinke Calls ‘a Little BS’ on Report That He Ran Up Travel Expenses

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Sept. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today said it’s “a little BS” that media outlets are calling attention to his travel expenses on private and military aircraft, following revelations about newly resigned Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Politico this week reported that Zinke and his aides took various flights – with one charter plane costing at least $12,300 – to his home state of Montana and the Caribbean Islands. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation today, Zinke said the three flights in question were fully vetted by his agency’s ethics division and all were used for official business. He noted that it’s not unusual for public officials to book charter flights on short notice when there are no commercial options available.

Travel of federal officials has been under the microscope after Politco reported that Price paid for private flights with taxpayer money to places where he has friends and family. Price has agreed to reimburse U.S. taxpayers about $50,000 for at least $400,000 in flights for the secretary and his staff. President Trump said this week that he is “not happy about” Price, followed by Price’s resignation this evening.

Before offering his prepared remarks, Zinke, a Navy SEAL veteran, said he would like to address – in the words of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopz, Jr. — “a little BS” on travel.

“I believe that taxpayers absolutely have the right to know official travel costs. It’s common sense, and at the department we make those documents and my travel schedule available to everyone,” he said. “Using tax dollars wisely and ethically is the greatest responsibility and is at the heart of good government, and there are times wherever we have to utilize charter services because we often travel to areas and under circumstances that we don’t have other flight options. I fly coach.”

Since being sworn in, Zinke said he and his staff have chartered planes on three separate occasions. The first was a trip to the Arctic Circle after an invitation from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Zinke traveled with a bipartisan congressional delegation that he said was consistent with the department’s policies.

The second trip was to his home state of Montana, after he received an invitation from Gov. Steve Bullock (D). Zinke said he took a late-night flight in order to speak the next morning at the Western Governors Association.

The third trip, Zinke said, was to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the Department of Interior has federal oversight. The purpose of the trip was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the transferring of power from Denmark to the United States. Zinke attended the event with the prime minister of Denmark.

Zinke explained that he and his staff also took military flights to Montana with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to assess wildfires in Montana, as well as various military flights with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke claimed that all flights were signed off after the department conducted its due diligence and determined they were the best options.

“Of course, we are always looking at ways to lower the costs of the department and also, as you’ll find out, to increase revenues,” he said, adding that his office is always up front about travel costs. “In fact, you can follow me on Twitter. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I traveled by Suburban from Valley Forge this morning.”

Zinke appeared at the Heritage Foundation to discuss American energy dominance, arguing that the federal government makes too many top-down decisions without giving people on the ground in local communities a voice.

“That stops with this administration,” he said.

Interior plans to cut the annual regulatory agenda by 50 percent, which Zinke called a “national imperative.” He said the department will not streamline at the expense of security, safety and the environment.

“Our goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower that this world has ever known,” he said.