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Watchdog finds security for Zinke and his wife's vacation cost taxpayers $25,000

Taxpayers spent $25,000 on security for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's vacation to Turkey and Greece with his wife, the Department of the Interior watchdog is expected to say in an upcoming report obtained by the Washington Post. 

The Department of the Interior inspector general partly faults the U.S. Park Police, which had no finalized policy governing such an expense for the unarmed detail on that 2017 trip. The report notes Zinke "did not specifically request" a detail on the trip, and the decision to provide protection was made by a U.S. Park Police supervisor because the official felt Turkey posed a potential security risk. 

The report also found that, despite a DOI policy prohibiting non-government employees from riding in government vehicles, the DOI Office of the Solicitor's Division of General Law approved Zinke's wife, Lolita Zinke, and others to ride in government vehicles with him. Zinke later altered the policy to allow family to ride along. The inspector general found the Zinkes reimbursed costs for Lolita Zinke's trips in DOI vehicles "when required," according to the watchdog report obtained by the Post. 

According to the report, Zinke also confirmed to investigators he directed his staff to research whether his wife could have a volunteer job at the department, interpreted by one ethics official as a way to make it so he didn't have to foot the bill for his wife's travel.

"We're spending taxpayer dollars trying to figure out if she can be a volunteer so that he (Zinke) doesn't have to pay (reimbursement for her riding in government vehicles)," said Ed McDonnell, a designated agency ethics official. 

 The report is expected to be posted publicly on Oct. 22.

Zinke has been under scrutiny after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told his staff that HUD's assistant secretary for administration, Suzanne Tufts, was leaving to become the new DOI inspector general. That would effectively replace Mary Kendall, the top DOI inspector general official overseeing multiple investigations into Zinke. (The agency hasn't had a permanent inspector general in years.) 

But Heather Swift, a senior adviser to Zinke, dismissed reports that Tufts would be replacing the current deputy inspector general as "jumping to conclusions." No decision was ultimately made to move Tufts to the Interior Department, and HUD sent out an email with "false information" in it, Swift said. 

A spokesperson for Kendall told CBS News on Wednesday that she is still on the job, and has not received any indication otherwise. 

Multiple Trump-appointed Cabinet officials have gotten in trouble for travel spending. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over his use of private charter planes. Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was highly criticized over his travel to Europe, and was eventually ousted from his post. Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt also resigned over multiple ethics investigations, including one into his travel expenses, that obscured his profile and work. 

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.