Letters from the West

Zinke’s spending on Interior’s doors recalls Kempthorne’s $236,000 bathroom

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke could be excused for feeling put upon by reaction to the news that new doors for his office will cost $138,670.

Zinke is caught up in a revolving controversy surrounding the ornate office built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes in 1937, in the depths of the Depression. The office, considered the most extravagant in Washington, was a part of a $13 million Interior building that was sorely needed at the time, but has always drawn criticism.

Zinke’s press secretary Heather Swift told CNN the former Montana congressman and Navy Seal was unaware of the cost of the doors, part of a decadelong modernization of the building. Swift acknowledged the cost was high, but blamed regulations that require preserving historic buildings and outdated procurement rules along with “career facilities and securities people.”

This episode harkens back to the controversy former Interior Secretary and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne faced as he was leaving the D.C. office in 2009. Kempthorne was raked over the coals after he spent $236,000 replacing an office bathroom plagued with water leaks and eventually removed for a new fire escape.

An audit of the project showed spending on luxury items like a $3,500 refrigerator, $2,600 in custom cabinets, a $689 faucet and a $65 “vintage tissue holder.”

Kempthorne’s spokesman at the time talked about the office’s history going back to Ickes. But mostly, Kempthorne took the gleeful chiding of the press and critics quietly as he left office.

The criticisms of Zinke are getting even more traction because they are a part of a pattern of seemingly out-of-control spending by several of President Trump’s cabinet secretaries.

Replacing two balcony doors that have long leaked — threatening the hardwood floor of Ickes’ extravagance — and a hall door that doesn’t even have a lock is relatively easy for Zinke to defend, even if the costs are pretty high.

But Zinke’s travel practices, which are under investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general, are another story altogether. He was criticized for charging the federal government for a flight from a political event in Las Vegas, and for paying for a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon with fire funds.

In November, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said the investigation of his travel was hindered by “absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips,” according to the Washington Post.

So this week, when Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell grilled Zinke over President Trump’s budget and his stewardship of public lands, she raised the issue of “private jet rides and expensive doors.”

Zinke responded angrily: “I resent the fact of your insults. I resent the fact they’re misleading.” But it was the kind of questioning Cabinet secretaries get all the time from Congress.

Cantwell kept her cool.

“The IG is looking at this issue, and we’re looking at the larger issue of how money is spent, and the reason is because of our citizens asking why their park fees are going up, and they’re reading these stories,” she responded.

Kempthorne came into office in 2006 after Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s scandal-ridden tenure, which included Stephen Griles, Norton’s undersecretary, going to prison for lying to Congress. Kempthorne’s first act was to go to Inspector General Earl Devaney, who was investigating several scandals, and give Devaney his support in exposing corruption.

Kempthorne, now president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers, had his critics. But he always kept his cool and responded with dignity.

Perhaps Zinke could benefit from picking up the telephone and talking to Kempthorne, the last Republican to hold his job, for some advice and guidance.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker