New revelations show that "Billionaire Air" is not just a waste of taxpayer money — it might also violate federal law.
As much as Donald Trump wants it to go away, the scandal of his Cabinet members living large on unnecessary private and military jet travel continues to grow.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price may be out, but all the other Trump administration officials who took private trips on “Billionaire Air” and stuck taxpayers with the bill remain — including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
And Zinke’s troubles may be only just beginning. A new Politico report may have taken Zinke’s use of non-commercial flights over the line from wasteful to illegal.
According to the report, Zinke flew to Alaska in a military plane, at taxpayer expense, and visited a steakhouse in Anchorage — at exactly the same time that steakhouse was holding a fundraiser for Republican Rep. Don Young:
Zinke’s calendar for that day includes a brief stop at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Anchorage, the same venue listed on the invitation, for a “Rep. Don Young Reception.” Later that night, Zinke went to dinner with representatives of sportsmen's groups, according to his schedule.
The Anchorage stop came in the middle of a weeklong trip that included the use of a military plane to fly from Washington, D.C., to Norway, Greenland and then Alaska. Interior paid for Zinke and three Interior staff members to take the flight. Zinke’s wife, Lola, also accompanied him on the trip but reimbursed the government for the cost of her seat, Interior has said.
This trip creates the appearance that Zinke himself was participating in the fundraiser. As former White House ethics counsel Richard Painter pointed out, that would be a violation of the Hatch Act, which bans most executive officials from engaging in partisan political activity while in office.
Zinke has been tripped up repeatedly by federal ethics laws. In March, he allegedly posed for photos in the U.S. Virgin Islands with people in return for four-figure donations to the territorial Republican Party, prompting a lawsuit from watchdog group Campaign Legal Center and calls for a federal investigation from former Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Schaub.
That month, he also traveled to a ski resort in Montana for a fundraiser for Republican Sen. Steve Daines. As Politico notes, "All three fundraisers occurred on trips that Zinke took for official Interior Department business."
Meanwhile, the Office of Special Counsel is looking into a speech Zinke gave to a professional hockey team owned by a major donor to his congressional campaigns. And Zinke’s chartered flights are the subject of another lawsuit from American Oversight, now under review by the Office of the Inspector General.
But Zinke’s visit to the Alaskan steakhouse while zipping around on a military jet now ties together his travel scandal with his Hatch Act violations, painting a picture of a profoundly corrupt government official who exploits his office to help himself and his friends at every turn.
Since taking office, Trump has filled the swamp with ever swampier creatures. It is time to clean house and make it clear that the Cabinet — along with their boss in the White House — are accountable to the people.