Zinke on Friday disclosed that he has taken three charter flights since taking office in March, including a $12,375 late-night trip from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana in June. He said no commercial flight was available after 8 p.m. local time, when he planned to fly for a speech to western governors the next day in Whitefish, Montana.
Zinke is one of several Cabinet members facing questions about their travel after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price came under criticism for using costly chartered planes while on government business. Price resigned later Friday.
Zinke was in Las Vegas to speak to the Vegas Golden Knights, the city's new National Hockey League team. The team's owner, Bill Foley, contributed to Zinke's congressional campaigns. Zinke is a former Montana congressman. During his June 26 visit to Nevada, Zinke also announced funding grants to rural communities earlier in the day.
Despite his dismissal of the controversy, Zinke said before a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation on Friday, "Taxpayers absolutely have the right to know official travel costs. It's common sense ... and the heart of good government."
In what he called an effort at transparency, Zinke disclosed details on the Vegas flight at the Heritage speech and said he also traveled by private plane in Alaska in May and the U.S. Virgin Islands in March. Zinke wants to expand energy production in Alaska, while the Interior Department oversees the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Zinke said he also went on a military flight with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to view wildfires in Montana in August. All of his travel was approved in advance by Interior's ethics officials "after extensive due diligence," Zinke said, adding that he works hard to "make sure I am above the law and I follow the law."
Zinke's office did not provide the costs for his Alaska or Virgin Island trips, but said in a statement that commercial flights were not available in either case. Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said private travel by Zinke, Price and other Cabinet members was "troubling." Zinke's Las Vegas trip was especially worrisome because it was "tied to political interests," Libowitz said, noting the apparent reason for the late flight was Zinke's speech to the hockey team owned by a campaign contributor.