Energy 202: Zinke labels travel spending critiques 'insults' and 'innuendos'

Wednesday , March 14, 2018 - 8:40 AM

Dino Grandoni

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

When Scott Pruitt weathered criticism over the cost of his first-class flights, the Environmental Protection Agency chief suggested his “very next flight” would be coach.

When the same happened to then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, he apologized for the private charter flights he took and pledged to repay taxpayers nearly $52,000. He also ultimately resigned.

But what about Ryan Zinke, head of the Interior Department?

On Tuesday, the former Montana lawmaker - in a trip to see his old colleagues on Capitol Hill - defended his use of charter planes for trips to Montana, Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands that critics of the Trump administration hold up as yet another of spendthriftiness among Cabinet officials.

Labeling criticism as “innuendos,” Zinke defended his travel spending during a heated Senate budget hearing. Zinke went to Capitol Hill to defend the agency’s proposed $11.7 billion budget for 2019 and also argued that discounts for veteran and elderly visitors to national parks are forcing Interior to consider raising entrance fees.

“I resent the fact of your insults. I resent the fact they’re misleading,” Zinke told Maria Cantwell, Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who pressed the secretary about a $12,375 flight Zinke chartered from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana.

Raising his voice after delivering staid opening remarks, Zinke bristled at the suggestion of impropriety, pointing out that his predecessors as interior secretary, Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell, spent “just under a million dollars” on 81 trips.

“I never took a private jet anywhere,” Zinke said, emphasizing that the flights he chartered in Alaska, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Nevada were on propeller planes, not jets.

“We’re looking at the larger issue of how time and money is spent,” Cantwell responded, “and the reason why we are is because of our citizens who want to know why their park fees are going up,” referring to a National Park Service proposal to double or, in some cases, nearly triple entrance fees for popular parks and attempting to link the issues.

Zinke had said the proposed price increase is just that - a proposal. “Our proposal looked at multiple options,” Zinke said.

He continued: “When you give free or discounted or free passes to the elderly, fourth-graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there’s not a whole lot of people that actually pay.”

Unlike Pruitt or Price, Zinke seemed to take a tack from his boss’s media playbook on the flights issue by refusing to relent in the face of scrutiny not only from the lawmakers but from within his agency. Last October, Interior’s inspector general opened an investigation into Zinke’s use of taxpayer-funded charter and military planes and his mixing of official trips with political appearances.

Even so, Zinke job is unique among Cabinet officials. As interior secretary, he oversees one in every five acres of land in the United States, requiring him to fly to remote corners of the country, making comparisons between his travel spending and that of other top Trump officials more difficult.

Zinke’s defensive tone stands in contrast to the outreach he made to Democratic senators when seeking confirmation as interior secretary, demonstrating the degree to which tensions are now strained between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration. A year ago this month, 16 Senate Democrats joined every Republican in the chamber to approve Zinke.

On Tuesday, one of those 16 said he deeply regretted that vote.

“I voted for your nomination,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, suggesting Zinke has fallen short of emulating his role model Theodore Roosevelt. “As of today, it is one of my biggest regrets.”

Later in the hearing, Zinke found a sympathetic ear in Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., over perceived criticism of an approximately 400-mile flight Zinke took from Alaska’s North Slope to Fairbanks. “They’re giving you heck for taking a private plane from the North Slope?” Cassidy asked, referring to a remote northern region of Alaska managed mostly by the Interior Department.

“Senator, I’ve been shot at before,” Zinke replied. “I’m very comfortable with it.”


Sign up for e-mail news updates.