(CNN)In September, women gun owners and enthusiasts from the National Rifle Association headed to a plush Four Seasons resort in Texas for an annual retreat and clay shooting at the Dallas Gun Club with one of the weekend's headliners: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's NRA visit among several trips being questioned
Zinke went to target practice with the women, posting about their marksmanship on Twitter -- #GalsWithGuns -- as part of his two-night stay. He also stopped at a posh office park in Dallas to meet with a small group that included wealthy Republican donors who raised money for Trump's presidential campaign. The meeting appears on the secretary's official schedule as an informal luncheon with community leaders focused on sporting and conservation.
Zinke's choice to meet with donors in the midst of official business is one of several travel decisions during his first year as secretary that have some critics questioning his priorities, even if they don't necessarily violate agency rules. Zinke's travel habits have already spawned two investigations, including one looking into whether his activities are in violation of the Hatch Act, which limits the political activity of federal employees.
A CNN review of documents found several examples that ethics watchdogs say raise questions about whether Zinke is misusing his travel privileges, despite receiving approval from the department's lawyer and ethics officer.
Among those are a helicopter tour with a wildfire management supervisor on a day that 22 fires raged in the West and a trip to the Channel Islands in Southern California around the Easter holiday, where officials considered having a park ranger spend the night in a National Park Service boat for the sole purpose of securing it at a harbor where it's not usually docked in order to make Zinke's schedule work.
Documents released last year by the Interior Department showed Zinke used Park Police and other government helicopters to shuttle himself to events; Politico reported the helicopter flights cost taxpayers more than $14,000 and that he spent $3,100 on private planes on a trip to the US Virgin Islands.
The spending comes as the Trump administration is pushing to cut the agency's overall budget.
Zinke is one of several Cabinet secretaries who have faced intense scrutiny of their travel habits. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after a scandal over his misuse of private planes. The Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog has expanded an audit of Administrator Scott Pruitt's travel. And Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is managing fallout from the discovery that his chief of staff misled officials to justify the agency covering a flight to Europe for his wife.
Cabinet secretaries are the public faces of their agencies, and as part of their official work do outreach to groups, lawmakers and other stakeholders that impact their work. Interior, which oversees the Park Service and roughly 600 million acres of federal land, much in the West, does require lots of travel for leaders.
On a department webpage dedicated to Zinke's excursions called "On the road with Secretary Zinke," he says it's important that he spends time with those who work on public lands "to learn more about their challenges, where opportunities are, and how Washington can make their job easier and their mission achievable."
Zinke's schedule -- or the parts of his schedule made public through various watchdog lawsuits -- shows that Zinke often mixes political meetings with high-end accommodations and official duty on his trips, and has booked or tried to book charter flights for his travels.
The NRA is composed of gun owners, many who use public lands. But it is also a powerful political lobbying group that strongly supports gun rights.
Zinke's ties to the group predate his time in the Trump Cabinet -- the NRA contributed at least $4,000 to Zinke's successful 2016 campaign for re-election to the US House from Montana. When Zinke was confirmed for the Interior job, the NRA called him "good news for gun owners" who "have a friend in Ryan Zinke."
Interior advance staff requested the Four Seasons so Zinke would "have a base of operations that is close and easily accessible" to the event "and its attendees," according to an agency memo dated September 18, 2017, which was made public in response to Freedom of Information Act request. The memo says the Four Seasons offered a rate of $195 per night, which was $60 higher than the government rate.
While in Dallas, Zinke attended a "NRA Luncheon with Community Leaders" at an upscale office park. The group included Susan LaPierre, wife of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and a board member of the National Park Foundation; Trevor Ahlberg, a big-game hunting enthusiast and Republican donor; Trump campaign fundraisers Tommy Hicks and Gentry Beach; and Ray Washburne, a Dallas restaurant operator who the Trump administration picked to lead the Overseas Private Investment Corp., according to his schedule.
"Secretary Zinke seems to think that he's still on the campaign trail. There is a time and place for rubbing elbows with donors and generally that is not when officials are conducting official government business," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan watchdog group Project for Government Oversight. "This administration needs to run the government and stop cozying up to donors with future elections in mind."
In the evening, Zinke was back at the Four Seasons to address the NRA Women's Leadership Forum Dinner, according to the secretary's schedule made public on the department's website as a result of a FOIA request.
In response to questions from CNN about the trip, Interior press secretary Heather Swift said, "the Scheduling Office meets regularly with the Departmental Ethics Office and the Division of General Law to ensure that all travel is thoroughly reviewed and approved in advance and that it is fully compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations. Consistent with this process, trips are reviewed and approved in advance by both the Departmental Ethics Office and the Division of General Law." Swift did not specifically address questions about the donor meeting.
The Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group, wrote to the Interior Department's Inspector General, suggesting the trip was muddied by the donor meetings and asked it to investigate.
Several sources with knowledge say that Zinke is among the cabinet members with the most respect from the President, who values his military experience and his opinion -- well beyond the scope of his job at Interior.
But when it comes to travel, Zinke has a history of questionable choices, including from his time in the military.
His career as a Navy SEAL was derailed when he admitted to poor judgment for taking government flights back to his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, using taxpayer expenses at a time he was supposed to be helping to prevent such abuses, according to documents obtained by and interviews conducted by The New York Times. One admiral told the Times he gave Zinke "a fitness report that I thought would not allow him to get to Captain."
His travel as secretary is currently the subject of two government reviews. The Office of Special Counsel has a Hatch Act investigation into Zinke's meeting with the Vegas Golden Knights, a hockey team owned by someone Zinke called "a major donor" in his 2014 congressional campaign. Interior's inspector general also announced in October that it is investigating his travel practices, including a charter flight he took after meeting with the hockey team and traveling to Montana.
The inspector general has already chastised Zinke and his aides for poor record-keeping. "Our investigation has been delayed by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability," Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote in November. Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt replied that the agency "inherited an organizational and operational mess from the previous administration," but did not explain why the department had not kept up with Zinke's paperwork.
Zinke last year called the controversy over his travel habits "a little B.S."
The Campaign Legal Center said the inadequate record-keeping and a lack of transparency allows the Interior Department to avoid scrutiny.
"Secretary Zinke appears to have received a free pass from the White House with respect to the discovery of record-keeping practices so abysmal as to thwart investigation of his travel activities," said CLC ethics counsel Delaney Marsco.
Last Easter, officials at Interior considered giving a park ranger an unusual assignment: Spend the night on a National Park Service boat to insure that Zinke and his family could take a quick day trip to the Channel Islands - a five island national park off the coast of California, advertised by the National Park Service as "ideal for quiet, uninterrupted time with family and friends-wonderful places to hike, camp, snorkel, kayak, birdwatch, take photographs, sketch, or just relax to the soothing sounds of the natural world."
Internal emails obtained by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and shared with CNN, show the logistical hoops Park Service staff jumped through when they had to divert an agency boat from its usual Ventura, California, location to meet Zinke, his wife and guests at a Santa Barbara pier minutes from the Zinke's California home.
The Washington Post previously reported on the trip.
According to internal emails between Park Service employees and Zinke's office, it would take "two hours to motor from Ventura to Santa Barbara," by boat. Restaging the boat in Santa Barbara cost an estimated $1,740 in overtime and fuel, according to Park Service documents.
The emails also show that some of the logistics surrounding the two-day tour of the Channel Islands centered on making sure Zinke stayed on schedule to make it back to the mainland for a speech in Santa Barbara to the conservative group Young America's Foundation on April 17.
In one email from Channel Islands National Park Service Superintendent Russell Galipeau Jr. to employees he writes, "Got a bit more interesting today. Sec has a schedule [sic] evening presentation Monday 4/17 so trip to Santa Crus [sic] is cut to 1/2 day."
In another email, Zinke's then-Director of Scheduling and Advance, Rusty Roddy, writes to Galipeau, "Is it possible to get our agenda in...leaving at 9:00 a.m... and get back to the Santa Barbara pier by 4:00 p.m. Monday at the latest?"
To ensure the Channel Islands tour didn't jeopardize Zinke's other commitments, emails show the Park Service considered having a park ranger spend the night on board the boat they planned to dock at the Santa Barbara harbor overnight. It's unclear if that happened.
"We will have the boat overnight in the harbor. What level of security would you want on the boat overnight? A captain may plan to stay onboard overnight," Galipeau wrote in an email to Roddy.
The boat carried Zinke's wife, Lola, her aunt, two local fishermen classified as "technical experts" and other guests and Park Service officials for a three-hour tour that included a "swearing in ceremony of a junior ranger."
In the emails leading up to the trip, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff member at Channel Islands raised concerns about the fishermen. One of the fisherman "can be a bit of a conspiracy believer" and the other had a reputation for poaching, "which is not good," the staffer said, "and may be more of a perception problem for the secretary to be associating with those guys on board."
Another guest was Nita Vail, a supporter of Zinke who held a political fundraising event for him in 2014 when he was running for Congress. Vail is a fourth-generation rancher whose family once had a large ranching operation on Santa Rosa Island, part of the Channel Islands park.
The schedule indicates Zinke had 15-minute "tabletop" discussions on the boat ride. Documents show the secretary talked about wanting to open a "working demonstration ranch" on Santa Rosa Island to "highlight the island's ranching heritage."
In an email to the Park Service, Zinke's office stated the secretary wanted to visit the islands to meet with park staff, he "likes to meet with the employees and spend some time with them. In addition, if there are [sic] anything in particular you would like for him to see (site visits) and demonstrate, while he is there, please let us know (such as Channel Islands Live and impact on local schools)."
The Zinkes later reimbursed the government for a cost of $142, which was later upped to $152 because of a $10 late payment. The payment included the cost of Lola Zinke's ride.
Records obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and shared with CNN, show that Zinke's office was told in October that he was on pace to be $200,000 over budget for travel. Zinke's office disputes that, saying that fewer staff has meant they've spent less money, and the office remains within budget. Swift, the Interior spokeswoman, would not provide the exact amount spent on travel in 2017, saying there is "no set in stone budget for travel specifically."
"There is nothing deeply wrong with this 'grip-and grin' tour but it is galling when the Secretary is telling everyone else to tighten their belts," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, referring to $1.5 billion the Trump administration proposed cutting from the Interior Department's budget. "Taxpayers should not foot the bill for public officials acting as tourists."
Swift told CNN: "Suggesting that the Secretary of the Interior does not have official business learning about the operations and challenges of a National Park or meeting the team who works at a National Park that is under the Department is absurd. You may have missed the recent news that the Secretary is working on a national reorganization of the Department and has proposed a multi-billion infrastructure proposal targeting parks. He went to several parks last year leading up to drafting those historic initiatives and will continue to meet his team and learn more about local offices."
In July, Zinke took a helicopter tour through monuments in Nevada, which drew scrutiny for its cost after Politico pointed out his use of a chartered aircraft.
His recently obtained schedule shows that he was accompanied by a Bureau of Land Management supervisor who usually manages firefighting crews. That day, there were 22 new fires raging in the Great Basin, and two fires uncontained.
Lucas Rhea, a helitack crew supervisor whose Facebook page shows he was actively working on wildfires through September, is listed on the flight manifest with Zinke for five stops on July 30. Interior did not say if Rhea was pulled from firefighting duty to accompany Zinke.
Zinke's schedule released late last year also doesn't specify why a high-ranking firefighting official accompanied the secretary on a trip that had nothing to do with the wildfires, but Swift told CNN that federal regulations require an Interior-qualified helicopter manager to accompany the secretary on privately piloted chartered flights.
Interior has not always been able to get the private planes it's wanted. Emails uncovered by the watchdog group Democracy Forward through a FOIA request and shared with CNN, show that last July, pilots were in short supply.
In July, Interior staff attempted to charter two legs of Zinke's trip, one leg from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Santa Fe, and a second from Santa Fe to Las Vegas as part of his tour of federal lands in the West.
But "due to the active fires," an internal email says, "we're having trouble getting two pilots for the charter flights in Nevada and New Mexico. We're still waiting to hear from one more vendor, but please let me know if we are willing to proceed with the flights if there is only one pilot."
Not able to find a pilot, Zinke both flew commercial and drove.