FOLKSTON, Ga. — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Wednesday strongly defended his use of private charter flights for government business, calling criticism of his taxpayer-financed travel "complete and utter bull----" and driven by politics.
Zinke 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 "legal, ethical. All the trips went through absolute due diligence."
Zinke spoke to reporters following a tour by boat of a swamp at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia. He said that in his job, everything he does "goes through absolute legal review."
Previous Interior secretaries spent even more money on private travel, Zinke asserted. "I wish you'd publish that. Because I can tell you, they're in the millions," he said without providing any documentation.
Zinke's comments came as Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee asked the Interior Department to provide documents on the use of private charter flights for government business by the past three Interior secretaries, including two who served under President Barack Obama.
Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas said they were seeking the information following news reports that Zinke and other Trump Cabinet members used noncommercial flights costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Bishop chairs the Natural Resources panel, while Westerman leads an oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Meanwhile, a climate scientist who filed a high-profile whistleblower complaint against Zinke resigned. Joel Clement was reassigned to an accounting job in June after warning about dangers faced by Alaska Natives because of climate change. Interior's inspector general is probing his reassignment along with about 50 other senior employees who have been reassigned since Zinke took office seven months ago.
Clement told Zinke in a scathing letter Wednesday that the Interior chief has "disrespected the career staff of the department by questioning their loyalty" and "played fast and loose with government regulations to score points with your political base at the expense of American health and safety."
Clement was referring to Zinke's comment last week that nearly one-third of Interior's 70,000 employees are not loyal to him or President Donald Trump. "I got 30 percent of the crew that's not loyal to the flag," Zinke said, comparing Interior to a pirate ship.
Democratic lawmakers have called on Zinke to apologize, but he has given no indication he will do so.
In their letter Wednesday, the GOP lawmakers said federal officials should be "held to the highest ethical standard" in adhering to rules regarding transparency and responsible use of taxpayer dollars. That includes Zinke and former Interior secretaries Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar, the lawmakers said.
"When violations occur, the public deserves to know. When willful violations occur, there should be consequences," Bishop and Westerman said. At the same time, "when partisan opportunists conflate diligent conformance to scandal, no one wins," they added. "Let's get all facts on the table."
Zinke said last week he's taken 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, spokeswoman Heather Swift said Tuesday. "As with previous secretaries, Secretary Zinke's travel is paid for by the government," she 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 Trump's inauguration.