Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke failed to disclose relevant information to ethics officials when he traveled to Las Vegas to speak to the Golden Knights hockey team last year, the department’s watchdog reported Monday — including the fact that one of his biggest campaign donors owned the team.
The report by Interior's inspector general also raised questions about whether taxpayers should have been on the hook for a $12,000 charter flight that Zinke took after the speech from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana. Because Zinke's speech did not even mention the Interior Department, the IG said it's unlikely ethics officials would have OK'd it as official business.
"If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight," the report said. "Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion."
The report found that Interior did not break any laws, but that Zinke’s failure to disclose his relationship with Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and the content of his speech prevented a closer look by ethics officials.
Ed McDonnell, an ethics attorney at Interior’s Office of the Solicitor, told investigators that “he was surprised” that Zinke’s speech to the NHL team focused on the former Montana congressman’s time as a Navy SEAL and did not mention the agency or Zinke's activities as secretary, according to the report.
“When asked whether the trip would have been approved if the Ethics Office had known the substance of the speech and the cost of the chartered flight ahead of time, McDonnell told investigators, ‘I don’t know if it would have been approved as an official event,’” the report said.
An Interior spokesperson did not immediately offer comment on the report.
The Las Vegas trip is just one of several occasions when Zinke mixed political events and fundraisers into his official travel itinerary. Interior asked the Virgin Islands GOP for and received reimbursement for expenses after Zinke appeared at the group’s fundraiser in March 2017 during an official visit to the islands, an appearance that put him in danger of violating Hatch Act requirements against executive branch officials using their positions for partisan purposes.
The IG said Zinke first mentioned wanting to speak to Foley’s hockey club during his first week as Interior secretary but did not tell departmental ethics staff that Foley had been one of his campaign contributors. Foley, who is also chairman of Fidelity National Financial, personally donated $7,800 to Zinke’s 2014 congressional campaign, and Fidelity employees and PACs associated with the company gave another $166,860.
Melinda Loftin, Interior’s top ethics official last year, told investigators that if her staff had known that fact, it may not have altered the approval of the trip but could have prompted a discussion about “the optics.”
According to the report, Zinke said that ethics officials had not told him his speech needed to reference Interior, and that he did not believe disclosing his relationship to Foley “would have made a difference in their decision.”
Zinke was the “final arbiter” of approving the speech and the trip, not ethics officers, McDonnell told investigators.
Interior officials also said the decision to travel to Las Vegas to speak to the hockey team was made prior to the decision for Zinke to make a federal grant announcement in the town of Pahrump, Nev., about 60 miles from Las Vegas.
Typically, those grant announcements were made by press release rather than on site, Olivia Ferriter, deputy assistant secretary at Interior’s Office of Policy, Management and Budget, told the inspector general.
“We determined that the location of the [grant] announcement was selected after Zinke and his staff already planned to be in Las Vegas for the Golden Knights event, and that Zinke had been aware of the Golden Knights event as early as March 7, 2017, 6 days after he became Secretary,” the inspector general report said.
Zinke had initially told investigators that his speech to the Golden Knights was not the first event on that trip’s itinerary to be planned, “but he then acknowledged that it could have been,” the report states.
“But it didn’t drive the schedule,” the report quotes Zinke as telling investigators. “The priority was not the hockey team.”
The report goes on to say that Zinke could have avoided taking the charter flight to Montana to speak at a Western Governors’ Association meeting the next morning if he had scheduled the Golden Knights speech for another time when cheaper flights were available. Employees at Interior and the Golden Knights said the timing for the event was flexible, and could easily have been set at a later date.
One Interior employee told investigators that Zinke’s chief of staff, Scott Hommel, described the meeting as a “firm event.” Hommel told investigators he did not recall discussing adjusting the schedule.
And Hommel “acknowledged that the cost of the flight seemed high, but added that a cabinet secretary ‘needs to get where he needs to get,’” investigators said in the report.
The IG found that Zinke’s use of other charter flights for travel in the Virgin Islands and Alaska was justified because of a lack of alternatives.
Interior also paid the White House $52,000 for a flight on Air Force One and another on Air Force Two that Zinke never actually took, the report said. In both cases, the White House asked Zinke to take the flights, then removed the invitation but never reimbursed Interior for the money spent. Interior spent another $105,000 on four flights Zinke took on the two planes and owes $28,000 for a fifth.