Watchdog launches probe into Ryan Zinke's travel

WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (Reuters) - The Interior Department's watchdog agency has launched an investigation into Secretary Ryan Zinke's travels after reports emerged last week that he had used a private plane owned by an oil executive, the inspector general's office said on Monday.

The Inspector General (IG) opened an investigation on Friday after receiving numerous complaints on Thursday about Zinke's travels, including the use of three chartered flights, IG spokeswoman Nancy DiPaolo told Reuters.

One of those flights taken in June from Las Vegas to near Zinke's hometown in Montana was on a plane owned by oil and gas executives, costing taxpayers over $12,000, the Washington Post reported last week.

Reports of Zinke's use of private and military planes came amid heightened scrutiny into private plane use by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned on Friday under pressure from President Donald Trump amid an uproar over his use of costly private charter planes for government business.

RELATED: US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

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KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ME - JUNE 14: With Mount Katahdin in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to the media during a tour of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Zinke was touring the monument because it is one of dozens of monuments up for review under an executive order from President Trump. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a boat to Georges Island, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is interviewed by Reuters, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (L) high fives National Park Service Ranger Beth Jackendoff on his National Monuments review visiting sites around Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke waits to take the stage with President Donald Trump for his on infrastructure improvements, at the Department of Transportation in Washington, U.S. June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (C) talks to National Park Service Rangers, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: Ryan Zinke visits SiriusXM Studios on September 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
SHANKSVILLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: Visitors listen to US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at the groundbreaking of the Tower Of Voices at the Flight 93 National Memorial on the 16th Anniversary ceremony of the September 11th terrorist attacks, September 10, 2017 in Shanksville, PA. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field outside Shanksville, PA with 40 passengers and 4 hijackers aboard on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on June 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed FY2018 budget request for the Interior Department. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the department's FY2018 budget request on June 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the department's FY2018 budget request on June 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ME - JUNE 14: With Mount Katahdin in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, talks with Lucas St. Clair, right, during a tour of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Zinke was touring the monument because it is one of dozens of monuments up for review under an executive order from President Trump. St. Clair's family gifted the land for the monument. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
MILLINOCKET, ME - JUNE 15: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with members of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket town council during a breakfast at Twin Pines Lodge in Millinocket on Thursday, June 14, 2017. Zinke is in Maine for a review of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, one of over two dozen reviews ordered by President Trump. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke listens while US President Donald Trump speaks at the US Department of Transportation June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump visit of the Transportation Department is part of a White House push to overhaul America's infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have also come under scrutiny over reports of expenseive private plane use. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney on Friday advised federal officials against chartering aircraft or using government planes unless necessary, reminding them that it comes out of taxpayers' pockets.

Zinke denied any inappropriate travel in a speech at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation on Friday and said his travels were approved by "career employees" of the Interior Department's ethics office.

He called reports about his recent use of chartered private flights “a little B.S.”

Zinke spoke at a dinner on June 26 to the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team, a new NHL team in Las Vegas owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc, a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaigns, the Washington Post reported.

SEE ALSO: Bannon: Trump's support for gun control would be the 'end of everything'

Zinke flew with staff on the chartered plane to Kalispell, Montana, near his hometown of Whitefish, where he was due the next day to address the Western Governors’ Association even as commercial flights were available.

Interior confirmed that Zinke flew two other chartered flights between the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Interior Department has jurisdiction over the Virgin Islands.

In a letter requesting an IG investigation of Zinke's travels, the top Democrats on the Natural Resources and Oversight committees questioned the purpose of the use of taxpayer flights to attend events unrelated to his work.

"We need to know how many taxpayer-funded trips Secretary Zinke and his wife Lola have taken to serve their personal or political interests rather than the public trust," said Congressman Raul Grijalva, who penned the letter with Congressman Donald McEachin.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Sandra Maler, Leslie Adler and Susan Thomas)

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Gary Cohn, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. President Donald Trump's encounter this week at the Group of 20 summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin is raising concerns among veteran American diplomats and analysts about a mismatch between a U.S. president new to global affairs and a wily former Soviet spymaster. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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