Trump’s Interior Sec. Caught Using Wildfire Preparedness Funds To Pay For Personal Helicopter Rides
The Trump administration’s Department of the Interior has admitted it “made a mistake” after being caught trying to use almost $40,000 from wildfire preparedness fund to pay for helicopter rides taken by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that had nothing to do with wildfires. The admission came only after Newsweek inquired about the account used to pay for the trip.
Zinke’s office initially told the publication that the costs of the Interior secretary’s July 30, 2017, helicopter ride in Nevada could be legally covered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Interagency Fire Center, even though Zinke did not visit fire zones. After follow-up questions, the Interior Department admitted the helicopter rides, listed as costing $39,295, were charged to the wildfire account “in error” and that the flights would be charged to a more appropriate account.
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“Zinke was criticized last month by his own agency’s inspector general for an incomplete accounting of his travel through September 30, the end of the fiscal year. The secretary has also been questioned for combining official trips with political activity, including attending a Republican party fundraiser in the Virgin Islands in March and taking a $12,000 flight from Las Vegas to Montana, where he spoke to a political donor.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog group, views the accounting method initially used for Zinke’s helicopter ride as extremely troublesome. “Ryan Zinke’s caused a lot of controversy with his private flights, but none have been as egregious as using wildfire preparedness funding to pay for a trip that had nothing to do with wildfires, while a wildfire ravaged California,” CREW wrote in a tweet Monday.
Ryan Zinke’s caused a lot of controversy with his private flights, but none have been as egregious as using wildfire preparedness funding to pay for a trip that had nothing to do with wildfires, while a wildfire ravaged California. https://t.co/B8geGpHerQ
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) January 1, 2018
Zinke has come under intense scrutiny for his travel practices. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into Zinke’s travel in September after the Interior secretary acknowledged he used non-commercial and non-military aircraft on at least three occasions.
He ordered a U.S. Park Police helicopter to take him and his chief of staff to an emergency management exercise in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on June 21. Zinke also ordered a Park Police helicopter to fly him and another Interior official to and from Yorktown, Virginia, on July 7 in order to be back in Washington in time for a late afternoon horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, according to Politico.
The helicopter flight to Shepherdstown — a West Virginia town from which many people commute to Washington on a daily basis — cost $8,000. The trip to Yorktown — a three-hour car ride if traffic isn’t backed up on I-95 — cost about $6,250, according to the documents obtained by Politico.
The Zinke helicopter flights were billed to the National Interagency Fire Center under the category of preparedness. Those funds are earmarked for such uses as worker pay and to purchase equipment, according to Newsweek. The National Interagency Fire Center coordinates federal wildfire-fighting resources.
Zinke has refused to apologize for his use of private charter flights for government business. In fact, Zinke told reporters in October that criticism of his taxpayer-financed travel “complete and utter bullshit” and driven by politics.