The Department of Interior Inspector General found that Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife violated policy for government travel and he considered making his wife a volunteer which would have allowed her to travel for free, according to a new report.
The investigation into Zinke’s alleged abuse of position found the secretary broke agency policy when his wife traveled with him in federal vehicles. The report also stated Zinke considered trying to get around agency rules by making her a volunteer at the agency, which would have entitled her to travel for free with him on the taxpayers’ dime. Zinke denies that his intention was to skirt government rules for reimbursement for travel, and the report states the Zinkes reimbursed the government for Lola Zinke’s travel in Interior Department vehicles when required.
“We determined that, despite a DOI policy prohibiting non-Government employees from riding in Government vehicles, the DOI Office of the Solicitor’s Division of General Law approved Lola Zinke and other individuals to ride in Government vehicles with Secretary Zinke, ” the report said.
According to the IG report, Zinke asked Department of Interior employees to research “the legal and ethical implications of making Lola Zinke an official DOI volunteer.” Had his wife been considered an Interior volunteer, she would not have to reimburse the government for traveling with her husband.
Specifically, Interior employees discussed designating Lola Zinke as a volunteer ombudsman for military service members, an issue of interest to the secretary, who speaks often of his own military service. According to the report, some Interior employees involved in the discussions said they felt some pressure from other Interior officials to make it happen, but raised concerns that it was wrong.
“We’re spending taxpayer dollars trying to figure out if she can be a volunteer so that he [Zinke] doesn’t have to pay [reimbursement for her riding in Government vehicles],” one said, per the report.
The report stated, “Ultimately, the employees advised him that making her a volunteer could be perceived negatively, and she did not become one.”
David L. Bernhardt, the deputy secretary of the Department of Interior sent a memorandum to Mary L. Kendall, the deputy inspector general, in reaction to the report. “For the allegations regarding a spouse accompanying the Secretary in a Department of the Interior vehicle, the determination you reached is unsurprising,” he wrote.
Bernhardt defended Zinke in the memorandum, obtained by CNN, and writes the Division of General Law told the secretary that it was permissible for his spouse to occasionally accompany him in a departmental vehicle even though that went against the general department vehicle policy.
“Since this longstanding legal advice and Secretarial practice were inconsistent with the Department’s general motor vehicle policy, either the written policy or the practice should have been changed long before now,” Bernhardt writes.
Bernhardt also writes in July the department modified its “Motor Vehicle Management Handbook” and adds, “Going forward, there should be no inconsistency between the written policy and the Department’s practice regarding travel in Departmental vehicles.”
The Department has “engaged in an aggressive and consistent effort to enhance the ethics program,” Bernhardt writes, adding the department has added several employees to the ethics team.
Among the watchdog’s other findings was that two former campaign donors invited and traveled with Zinke on a boat trip to the Channel Islands in southern California. Zinke told the IG he was sure this information had been shared with the ethics office that the two individuals were previous congressional campaign donors but ethics officials told investigators they were not aware.
Zinke is one of many in the Trump administration dogged by headlines of misuse of government funds and resources.
This latest report comes as questions have surfaced over who will lead the watchdog agency.
While the inspector general post has been vacant since 2011, Mary Kendall has led the office since 2009 as the deputy inspector general.
But, in an email sent last week, Housing Secretary Ben Carson bid “a fond farewell” to HUD Assistant Secretary Suzanne Israel Tufts, announcing she had “decided to leave HUD to become the Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior.”
The appointment of a political official as the acting inspector general was seen within the government watchdog community as highly unusual. But, Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said Thursday that Carson had sent the announcement with false information in it and that Kendall was ” still the Deputy Inspector General at the Department of the Interior.”
CNN’s Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.