Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s probably didn’t do anything wrong when he met with fundraisers during a business trip, a former head of the Interior Department during the President Barack Obama administration said Wednesday.
Zinke likely acted within his rights when he appeared at a political event in the U.S. Virgin Islands if the appearance was part of any official business, former Interior Chief Sally Jewell told reporters. She was referring to Zinke’s decision to meet with big donors or political groups while on official travel.
“If he had a legitimate business while he’s on the island, to do a political thing on the side I don’t think that is that unusual,” Jewell said, adding that she also appeared at a fundraiser for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington.
One watchdog group noted that meeting with high-profile donors is not illegal, but is generally considered inappropriate.
“It happens on occasion with other Cabinet secretaries, perhaps even a little more often as you get near the election, but it is not a very common practice for Cabinet members to be hopping around from campaign event to campaign event like we’re seeing with Zinke,” Craig Holman, government affairs specialist for government watchdog Public Citizen, told reporters.
Zinke received scathing criticism when he took a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Montana aboard a private plane owned by an oil and gas executive, according to a report published earlier this month. His flight cost $12,375, an Interior Department spokeswoman told reporters.
Interior’s inspector general (IG) is reviewing Zinke’s air travel. Zinke is one of four cabinet members to come under fire for chartering private planes with taxpayer dollars. Other Trump officials have received similar criticisms for their flight travels.
Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt, for instance, took four non-commercial and military flights to conduct official business for the agency. He flew from Cincinnati, Ohio, to New York’s JFK airport on June 7 and took an Air Force jet after attending an event with President Donald Trump. His trips cost taxpayers a total of $58,000.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned last week, likewise reportedly took five chartered jets over the course of a week earlier this month, spending roughly $400,000 on private planes since May.
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