Interior, EPA chiefs: No plans to pay back charter flights

Scott Pruitt
FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2017 file photo, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks in Washington. While Oklahoma’s attorney general, emails show that new Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt was in frequent contact with fossil fuel companies and special interest groups working to undermine federal efforts to curb planet-warming carbon emissions. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members say they do not plan to reimburse the government for charter flights costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Representatives of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt say the trips were pre-approved by ethics officials in their respective agencies and were part of their official duties.

Inspectors general for the two agencies have opened inquiries into the taxpayer-funded travel.

Zinke said 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.

The EPA said four non-commercial flights taken by Pruitt were approved by ethics lawyers. Documents show Pruitt and his staff chartered a private plane for an Aug. 4 trip from Denver to Durango, Colorado, to visit the Gold King Mine, site of a spill last year. The administrator also took three flights on government-owned planes to New York and North Dakota and a roundtrip between airports in Pruitt’s native Oklahoma.

Letters released by the EPA show the flights cost a total of $58,000 and were approved by the agency’s general counsel’s office.

“If a reimbursement was necessary for official government travel, the EPA’s Ethics Office would have told us during the approval process and we would’ve acted accordingly,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said Friday, the same day former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over criticisim of his private travel.

Asked about reimbursements Tuesday, Bowman declined to comment and referred questions to the White House.

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke, said Tuesday that all of Zinke’s flights — including a military flight with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to view wildfires in Montana in August — were approved by career officials at the department.

“As with previous (Interior) secretaries, Secretary Zinke’s travel is paid for by the government,” Swift said.

Meanwhile, the independent Office of Special Counsel said it 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.

A watchdog group, the Campaign for Accountability, filed the complaint last week.

“Rather than putting America first, Zinke is putting a top donor first,” said Daniel Stevens, the group’s executive director.

The Office of Special Counsel investigates whistleblower complaints involving federal employees.