Documents show involvement of Zinke's wife on official trip
Posted November 21, 2017 4:48 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — A batch of documents reveal frustration among staffers at the Department of Interior over coordinating travel for Secretary Ryan Zinke's wife on an official trip, creating another headache for an administration that's already been criticized for its handling of Cabinet secretary travel.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the advocacy group Western Values Project obtained government documents and emails that detail efforts by advance staffers to accommodate a last-minute change in Lolita Zinke's travel itinerary during a May trip to Alaska, Norway and Greenland. The trip was organized by the US Senate, and several spouses were invited to attend.
Staffers for Western Values Project have ties to Democratic politics.
Lolita Zinke was originally scheduled to return to Washington, DC, from Alaska on a military flight, but she requested to stay in Alaska longer with her husband as he was set to attend a Memorial Day ceremony. "Mrs. Zinke prolonged her trip because the Senator invited her to participate in the Rolling Thunder ride and ceremony," Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said in an email.
Swift added that Lolita Zinke had paid for her own commercial flight back home from Alaska.
The documents show that after an advance staffer learned that Lolita Zinke would be departing at a different date than previously scheduled, the staffer emailed with another staffer: "UGH! We have all kinds of planes, trains and automobiles manifests to now scramble with."
Aides also discussed in the emails that Lolita Zinke would need to pay her own way to attend an event hosted by the governor of Alaska, which included a meal. Multiple emails show that the secretary acknowledged that he would personally pay for his wife's meal, and Swift told CNN that the Interior Department incurred no further expenses by Lolita Zinke's presence at the event.
Politico first reported the documents.
Ryan Zinke has come under scrutiny for his possible mixing of work, political and personal activities. Tours of Interior Department parks and facilities have on several occasions taken him near his Montana or California homes.
The Interior Department's inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel began investigations when other Cabinet secretaries, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, came under fire for their use of private charter or government aircraft, which tend to be more expensive than commercial flights.
Last week, the inspector general issued a management advisory as part of its ongoing investigation. While the office said it has received full cooperation from Interior employees, it "discovered several issues that need prompt attention and changes to current IOS procedures."
Among the material requested by the inspector general were more travel documents involving Lolita Zinke while she accompanied her husband on official travel. The office also made recommendations to develop and implement procedures to improve travel documentation.
The deputy interior secretary, David Bernhardt, responded to the inspector general's office, saying that they had "inherited an organizational and operational mess from the previous administration," and he pointed to what he described as documentation holes from the previous interior secretary, Sally Jewell.
Bernhardt wrote that he read the recommendations and will "evaluate them and initiate implementation" with input from the inspector general.
Lolita Zinke has come under the microscope in her own right. American Oversight, a left-leaning government transparency group, has sued the Interior Department over its own FOIA requests for documents pertaining to her -- alleging she "has played an unusually prominent role" in the department and citing her accompanying her husband on his travel as evidence.
The documents obtained by the Western Values Project show some of Lolita Zinke's involvement in her husband's work, including her submission of a list of people she'd like to invite to an event hosted by the Young America's Foundation, a conservative group, at the Reagan Ranch Center in Simi Valley, California.
A separate email chain shows an Interior Department staffer informing Lolita Zinke of a White House briefing for Cabinet spouses in April. "They stressed the importance of attending since important ethics rules will be discussed and questions can be answered by White House Counsel," the staffer wrote to Lolita Zinke.
"Thank you," she responded. "It's a good thing I'll be in town then."
Lolita Zinke has a political profile in addition to being wife of the Interior secretary. In September, she became chairwoman of the Senate campaign for Republican candidate Troy Downing, who's challenging Democratic Sen. Jon Tester for his seat in Montana.