Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
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Zinke’s use of taxpayer-financed helicopters draws new scrutiny


Following up on a story we’ve been keeping an eye on, most Secretaries of the Interior can go their entire tenures without generating national media attention or political controversies. Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has only been on the job for nine months, but he can’t seem to stop generating national media attention and political controversies.

Politico reported a month ago on the Montana Republican’s latest mess, involving the dubious use of government helicopters. Newsweek  moved the ball forward yesterday.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) says it made a mistake by trying to use wildfire preparedness funds to pay for an unrelated helicopter tour of Nevada taken by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke this summer.

Officials initially said Zinke’s July 30 helicopter trip could be covered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Interagency Fire Center, a hub for the organization of response to wildfires – even though the secretary did not visit any fire zones that day, according to internal emails obtained by Newsweek.

But after Newsweek questioned the line item, an Interior Department spokeswoman said this week that the chopper – listed in an accounting of Zinke’s travel as costing $39,295 – “was charged to the account in error.” She added that the BLM would pay for the helicopter from “a more appropriate account.”

There’s already an investigation underway into Zinke’s dubious use of public money for his official travel, and this won’t help.

But as we discussed a month ago, there’s no reason to stop here.

There have been questions about Zinke’s wife saddling department staffers with extra work. The Federal Election Commission, meanwhile, has raised questions about a leadership PAC affiliated with Zinke during his time in Congress. Zinke also faced allegations about using unsavory lobbying tactics with U.S. senators.

And, of course, there’s that weird flag story: “A security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag whenever Zinke enters the building. When the secretary goes home for the day or travels, the flag – a blue banner emblazoned with the agency’s bison seal flanked by seven white stars representing the Interior bureaus – comes down.”

It’s worth emphasizing that Zinke has denied any wrongdoing, and it’s entirely possible the White House doesn’t care about the coverage. But if we’re creating a list of the most controversy-plagued members of Donald Trump’s cabinet, Zinke is probably near the top.