- Associated Press - Thursday, November 16, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has failed to keep complete records of his taxpayer-financed travel, hampering an investigation into his use of private charter flights for government business, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog said.

In a memo to Zinke’s office, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said her investigation “has been delayed by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation.”

While Interior employees have been cooperative, investigators have found that documentation and adherence to department policies are “deficient and without proper management oversight and accountability,” Kendall wrote in a two-page memo to Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

Investigators also have been unable to determine the full extent to which Zinke’s wife, Lolita, accompanied him on official travel, Kendall said.

Zinke has brushed off news reports that he took at least three private flights costing taxpayers a total of $20,000 since taking office in March, saying all his travel is ethical and went through proper due diligence.

At a public event in Georgia last month, Zinke called criticism of his taxpayer-financed travel “complete and utter bull” and driven by politics. Previous Interior secretaries spent even more money on private travel, he said.

Bernhardt said in a memo Thursday that travel procedures followed by previous Interior secretaries were “dysfunctional,” adding that most of those policies and procedures remain in effect, 10 months into the Trump administration.

Bernhardt promised to turn over documents for all travel by the secretary in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, including at least 10 travel vouchers related to trips taken by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The department also will provide information related to trips where Zinke’s wife or Jewell’s husband traveled in government-owned vehicles, watercraft or aircraft, and document whether payments were made or if reimbursements were required, Bernhardt said.

Zinke has said he’s taken at least three charter flights while in office, including a $12,375 late-night trip from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana in June. Zinke said no commercial flight was available when he planned to fly for a speech to Western governors.

Zinke also traveled by private plane in Alaska in May and to the U.S. Virgin Islands in March. The two trips cost a total of $7,000, the Interior Department said.

Zinke has no plans to reimburse the government, a spokeswoman said.

The independent Office of Special Counsel is investigating a complaint that Zinke’s speech to a Las Vegas hockey team may have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch officials from engaging in political activities. The team’s owner contributed to Zinke’s congressional campaigns and to President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

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