U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke chartered a private flight from Las Vegas to Montana, costing taxpayers more than $12,000. Other Cabinet members of President Donald Trump's administration have come under scrutiny for chartering expensive travel with government funds instead of opting for commercial.
On Sept. 28, aviation and business records revealed that Zinke and his staffers flew on a private plane owned by an oil firm in June. The flight cost $12,375, while a commercial flight between the two airports could have cost as little as $300, The Washington Post reports.
Zinke's first stop on his trip was a Lake Tahoe-based meeting with a conservative group of attorneys general. The next day, Zinke flew to announce a federal grant to rural communities in Pahrump, Nevada.
The Interior secretary then traveled to Las Vegas, where he delivered a speech praising the city's new NHL hockey team, the Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights' owner, Bill Foley, had donated nearly $200,000 to Zinke's previous congressional campaigns.
Following the speech, Zinke chartered a private plane owned by oil executive Jay Nielson of Nielson & Associates. The $12,000 flight dropped Zinke and his staffers near his home in Kalispell, Montana. The next day, he attended a meeting with the Western Governors' Association.
Aaron Weiss of the conservation nonprofit Center for Western Priorities blasted the disclosure of Zinke's private flight.
"Secretary Zinke's entire Nevada trip appears to be a flimsy excuse for a political event in Tahoe and a thank-you dinner with his biggest campaign bundler," Weiss said. "There was no legitimate reason for the secretary to be there in the first place. Then he saddles taxpayers with the bill for a private plane when he could have easily flown commercial."
Interior Department spokesperson Heather Swift asserted that Zinke only chartered the flight after discovering commercial flights were unavailable that day. Swift added that ethics officials screened and approved the flight.
On Sept. 29, Zinke addressed the controversy surrounding his private flight during a speaking event with the Heritage Foundation.
"All this travel was done only after it was determined by multiple career officials at the department that no commercial options existed to meet the promulgated scheduled," Zinke said, according to The Hill.
"The flights were only booked after extensive due diligence by the career professionals in the department's general law and ethics division," he added.
Several Trump administration Cabinet members have been criticized for using pricey and private flights. On Sept. 28, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price publicly apologized for spending $400,000 of his department's funds on private flights since assuming office and pledged to reimburse taxpayers with nearly $52,000 of his own money, according to The Hill.
That same day, records revealed that Price had also spent more than $500,000 on military flights across Africa and Europe, bringing the total of his travel expenses to over $1 million, Politico reports.