“The report resulted from one of the at least 18 known federal investigations into allegations of ethical misconduct or other policy violations by Mr. Zinke.”
WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated his agency’s travel policy by having his wife travel with him in government vehicles, a new report by the Interior Department’s inspector general found.
The report, which has not yet been made public but was posted online Thursday by The Washington Post, also found that Mr. Zinke considered requesting that his wife, Lolita, become an Interior Department volunteer in order to legitimize her travel. Mr. Zinke also had an agency security detail travel with him and his family during a vacation, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $25,000.
In addition, Mr. Zinke asked his security detail to drive a nongovernment employee to the airport on one occasion, also in violation of agency policy, the report found.
The report resulted from one of the at least 18 known federal investigations into allegations of ethical misconduct or other policy violations by Mr. Zinke.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said the report’s findings exonerated Mr. Zinke of allegations of misconduct.
“The Inspector General report proves what we have known all along: the secretary follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel,” the spokeswoman, Heather Swift, wrote in an email.
“Additionally, the secretary received the same exact legal advice from the solicitors as previous secretaries and he acted consistently. Concerning the internal travel policy, that has been updated to reflect the reality of the long standing situation,” she wrote.
The interior secretary has come under heightened scrutiny since the resignation in July of the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, who was forced to step down after investigations revealed multiple violations of ethics rules and possibly of the law. The conclusions of the new investigation into Mr. Zinke’s infractions are not of the scale of the allegations against Mr. Pruitt, but environmental groups used the new report to draw comparisons between the two men.
“Just like Scott Pruitt, Zinke thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “His cavalier attitude about taxpayer-funded travel is matched by his contempt for the environmental well-being of the public lands he’s turning over to extractive industries. This guy has no respect for the public’s money or our natural heritage.”
Environmental activists have criticized Mr. Zinke throughout his tenure, as the interior secretary has sought to scale back protections on public lands and open up vast new areas to oil and gas drilling.
They amped up their criticism of the ethics of the Interior Department this week amid reports that a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Suzanne Tufts, would be moved to the Interior Department to act as its chief watchdog.
“This move is particularly troubling considering the multiple investigations currently underway at D.O.I. — including several surrounding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — and the potential for the personnel change to disrupt those investigations,” Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee said in a statement Thursday.
Despite the increased scrutiny of Mr. Zinke’s actions, the report did not include any sharply critical findings. It concluded that Mr. Zinke ultimately reimbursed the agency for the cost incurred to taxpayers for his wife’s travel in government vehicles and that he did not follow through on initial proposals that his wife become an agency volunteer.
Despite an Interior Department policy prohibiting nongovernment employees from riding in government vehicles, the agency’s Office of Solicitor Division of General Law approved Mrs. Zinke and others to ride in government vehicles with Mr. Zinke, the report found. The agency’s deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, and deputy solicitor, Edward Keable, said that Mr. Zinke was not bound by his agency’s policy, while the principal deputy solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, said he was unsure, the report found.
The report found that it was not a violation of policy for Mr. Zinke to request the security detail while on vacation, though it noted the significant cost to taxpayers.
While Mr. Zinke’s request that his security detail drive a nongovernment employee to the airport was a violation of policy, he was told that it was inappropriate “and it has not happened again,” the report found.
The inspector general also investigated an allegation that Mr. Zinke requested a government cellphone for his wife and that an employee quit after being told to walk Mr. Zinke’s dog, but concluded that those reports were unfounded.