BREAKING: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated the department’s policy on travel, the agency’s watchdog concluded.
The Interior Department’s watchdog found that Zinke violated department policy by allowing his wife to travel in government vehicles and instructing his security detail to drive an associate to the airport.
The decision to take an unarmed security detail on his overseas vacation cost taxpayers $25,000, the report found.
This is a developing story. It will be updated.
Interior Department officials said Thursday that they did not approve the hiring of a political appointee as the agency’s acting watchdog, calling the announcement of her move by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson “100 percent false information.”
The backtracking on Suzanne Israel Tufts’s move two days after it drew widespread scrutiny deepened questions about how and why she was supposedly chosen to lead Interior’s inspector general’s office, which is currently conducting at least four investigations into Secretary Ryan Zinke. Last week investigators issued two subpoenas for documents to entities tied to the probes, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The furor over Interior’s inspector general came as the office sent its latest report to Capitol Hill, examining Zinke’s travel and that of his wife, Lola. The office concluded that staff in the department’s Solicitor office “approved Lolita Zinke and other individuals to ride in Government vehicles with Secretary Zinke” despite the fact that Interior policy prohibited this practice. Zinke also confirmed to investigators that “his staff had researched the implications of making her a volunteer,” and other employees raised concerns that this could be perceived as a way to cover her travel costs.
Zinke “denied that it was an effort to circumvent the requirement to reimburse the DOI for her travel,” the report states.
Critics of the administration said the report, which also found that taxpayers paid $25,000 to send an unarmed security detail with the Zinkes on their vacation to Turkey last summer, documents a breach of the public trust.
“This report shows Secretary Zinke’s dogged determination to use his office for personal gain, even going so far as to tell Interior’s top lawyer to lie to the public to justify his wife’s travel,” said Jen Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, an advocacy group. “Secretary Zinke owes the American people an apology — and a refund.”
Top White House officials said Thursday they had not been made aware of the plan to move Tufts, a lawyer from Queens who worked on President Trump’s campaign and has served as HUD’s assistant secretary for administration since December.
“Ms. Tufts is not employed by the Department and no decision was ever made to move her to Interior,” the agency’s press secretary, Heather Swift, said in a statement Thursday.
And in a striking public rebuke of another Cabinet agency led by a close friend of Zinke’s, Swift wrote that HUD “sent out an email that had 100 percent false information in it.” She affirmed that Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, who has led the office for nine years, is still in the job.
In an email Friday with the subject line “A Fond Farewell,” Carson wrote staff, “It is with mixed emotions that I announce that Suzanne Israel Tufts, our Assistant Secretary for Administration, has decided to leave HUD to become Acting Inspector General at the Department of Interior.”
“I am extremely grateful to Suzanne for her service to HUD and am confident that she will thrive in her new role,” Carson added.
Swift said Tufts was referred to Interior officials by the White House “as a potential candidate” for a position in the inspector general’s office. Swift did not say what position. “At the end of the day, she was not offered a job at Interior.”
HUD officials did not respond to a request for comment. Tufts could not be reached.
The about-face came after mounting criticism by lawmakers on Capitol Hill and watchdog groups of what appeared to be an unorthodox arrangement between the agencies to bring in a political appointee to oversee Kendall. Former president Barack Obama nominated her for the position of inspector general, but the Senate never voted on it. Tufts, meanwhile, is a former consultant who has no experience as an investigator and would have been leading one of the government’s most active inspector general offices.
Kendall is currently conducting at least four investigations of Zinke’s conduct, including his involvement in a Montana land deal and his activities in connection with two Connecticut tribes’ application to open a new casino.
In an interview Thursday, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said he had developed a good working relationship with Kendall, but that department leaders were scouting for someone the president could nominate to serve on a permanent basis.
“Mary would agree that it would be good for the inspector general to be a presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed individual,” Bernhardt said. “I think she would agree with us that the job has been vacant since [former Inspector General Earl] Devaney left, for almost a decade. That’s not good, because that’s not the way we run the country.”
Tufts’s appointment, announced to HUD staff by Carson last Friday, came to light this week through reports in The Washington Post and other outlets. White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss personnel matters, said the move came as a surprise to them.
Interior officials declined until Thursday to answer questions on Tufts’s hiring, saying instead that the post has been vacant for almost a decade and that any announcement on a Senate nomination would come from the White House.
While presidents have the right to both hire and fire inspectors general, the Inspector General Act of 1978 specifies that candidates should be chosen “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations.”
Michael Bromwich, who served as inspector general at the Justice Department from 1994 to 1999 as well as head of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from 2010 to 2011, called Tufts’s hire “highly unusual.”
“The statute says that alone among political appointees, this is a nonpartisan position to be staffed on a permanent basis by those with appropriate backgrounds,” Bromwich said. “It’s a real breach of protocol to put someone who’s only qualification is political allegiance to the Trump administration.”
Aside from the fact that she holds a law degree, it is unclear what specific aspect of Tufts’s background qualifies her for the job of Interior inspector general. Her résumé, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the advocacy group American Oversight, shows that she volunteered for “Trump-Pence 2017” by helping to train and deploy lawyers in the field.
Tufts wrote that she worked with the Republican National Lawyers Association on behalf of the Trump-Pence campaign in both Philadelphia and New York state. In addition, according to her résumé, she was “responsible for recruiting and training 20% of the attorneys sent into the field.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, questioned why the administration had changed its story on Tufts’s appointment.
“What is her job there? If they’re trying to shift blame for their latest scandal and backtrack while there’s still time, they should just say so. Either way, nobody is buying this explanation and we’re not going to stop pressing for answers.”
Tracy Jan and Robert O’Harrow contributed to this report.