Expense-ive error: Would Ryan Zinke make the same mistake twice? 

Back in June, newly minted secretary of the Interior Department, former Montana congressman and secret past member of the Navy SEALs Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell for $12,375. That's about $12,000 more than it would have cost to fly coach, and we paid for it. Taxpayers footed the bill for Zinke to fly on a private jet co-owned, through a holding company, by Jay Nielson, who is an executive vice-president of the oil and gas exploration firm Nielson & Associates.

That was this summer. The story came out last week, which was unfortunate timing for Zinke. It coincided with the news that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price spent more than $400,000 chartering private jets for his own travel this year—a story that ended in Price's resignation.

There are only two words for that: bad luck. It's a shame that news of Zinke spending taxpayer dollars to fly on a private jet owned by an executive in an industry with which his department works closely broke just now. It looks bad. Longtime readers of this column know that Commander Zinke is innocent, though. There has to be more to this charter-jet story, because I refuse to believe that a decorated veteran and 1.1 term congressman could act so, well, dumb.

Here is the itinerary at issue, according to the Washington Post. The night before he came to Las Vegas, Secretary Zinke spoke at a dinner in Lake Tahoe organized by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a policy organization for Republican state attorneys that's supported by the Koch brothers. The next day, he flew commercial from Reno to Las Vegas and appeared in Pahrump, Nev.—which is about as large as it sounds—to announce a routine grant from Congress to rural communities. Hours later, he delivered what the Post describes as a "motivational speech" to the Vegas Golden Knights professional hockey team. That night, he took the $12,375 charter flight from Vegas to Kalispell—a short drive from his home in Whitefish, where he presumably went to sleep under a giant cowboy hat. The next day, he spoke at a meeting of the Western Governors Association.

  • photo courtesy Gage Skidmore

That meeting and the Pahrump appearance were the official business portions of the trip. The other stuff, including the Rule of Law Defense Fund dinner and Zinke's speech to the Golden Knights, would be properly classed as political activities. The hockey team is owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial. Between its employees and associated political action committees, Fidelity donated just under $200,000 to Zinke's congressional campaigns.

This is not the first time Zinke's official trips for the Department of the Interior have coincided with political events. One of his first trips to Montana as secretary brought him to a Snow Removal Crew Meet & Greet at Mammoth Hot Springs, where he briefly addressed park staff before continuing to the Big Sky Resort for a fundraiser for the 2020 re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

It all fits together a little too neatly, which is how you know Secretary Zinke is innocent. If he were deliberately organizing his official itinerary so as to make taxpayers cover travel expenses for his political fundraising, he would disguise it better. To believe Zinke was abusing his travel privileges, you'd have to believe he was making the same mistake twice.

In the 1990s, back when he was an officer on SEAL Team 6, Zinke was cited for improperly billing the Navy for travel to Montana. He had to repay $211 in expenses for a trip he ostensibly took to scout training sites in Montana and eastern Washington—a trip that also involved time off to work on his family home. According to the New York Times, officials said they became suspicious because Zinke had no reason to be looking for training sites at the time, and because he "requested reimbursement for excess baggage even though he was traveling alone."

Why would a man whose Navy career was marked by improper billing of travel expenses go on to improperly bill travel expenses as a member of Donald Trump's cabinet? It just doesn't make sense.

You know the public, though. Quick to find fault with members of our armed services, newspapers and readers alike will relish this opportunity to undermine the troops. As one of the dwindling minority of Americans who believe that veterans deserve respect, I look forward to the rest of this story: the part that reveals Secretary Zinke did nothing wrong, and that having taxpayers spend the price of a used Honda Civic to fly him on a private jet belonging to an oil executive was the only way to associate with those Western governors. The alternative is just too dumb to believe.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the real story beneath the "facts" at combatblog.net.

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