U.S. interior secretary raised political funds on government trip: report

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on "Identifying Indian Affairs priorities for the Trump Administration" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on "Identifying Indian Affairs priorities for the Trump Administration" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Department of the Interior came under further scrutiny on Thursday amid a media report that he had attended a Republican fundraiser in March during a government trip to the Caribbean.

Politico, citing department travel records and other documents, said Ryan Zinke attended a Virgin Islands Republican Party fundraiser where donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photograph with the secretary.

The report comes as multiple investigations into the former one-term congressman's travel while serving in the Trump administration were announced this week following various media reports on the subject.

On Monday, the Interior Department's watchdog agency said it was probing Zinke's travels after recent reports that he had used a private plane owned by an oil executive.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said it was investigating whether he broke the law in June when he gave a speech to a professional hockey team owned by a political donor.

Other Cabinet members have also been scrutinized over their use of taxpayer money for more expensive private travel rather than less expensive commercial trips.

Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned on Friday following an uproar over his use of costly private charter planes.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have also come under question over their private plane use.

Questions have also been raised about the cost of security for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

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Democratic House lawmakers earlier this week called on Zinke to disclose the full details of all of his privately chartered airplane trips.

In a letter to the secretary, lawmakers pointed to one reported $12,000 private flight from Nevada to Montana, a route they said commercial airlines charge as little as $300 for.

"Abuse of taxpayer money has so far been a problem for the Trump administration," the group of 26 lawmakers wrote on Tuesday.

Representatives for Zinke did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Politico report Thursday.

Separately, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has said he is seeking information on any private, non-commercial or military flights taken by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, in a statement released on Wednesday, also said he was seeking evidence that Price had repaid U.S. taxpayers for his private flights.

Representatives for the White House said on Thursday that U.S. agencies were responsible for arranging their own transportation, and that Cabinet members "occasionally invite relevant White House staff for official travel" that is then "planned and secured by the inviting agency." 

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)