A Montana lawmaker tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of the interior committed travel fraud when he was a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6, according to three former unit leaders and a military consultant.
In announcing the nomination of Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL commander, Trump praised his military background. “As a former Navy SEAL, he has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing whatever it takes to win,” Trump said last week.
But when Zinke was a mid-career officer at SEAL Team 6, he was caught traveling multiple times to Montana in 1998 and 1999 to renovate his home. Zinke claimed that the travel was for official duties, according to the sources.
He submitted travel vouchers and was compensated for the travel costs.
Two SEAL officers investigated Zinke’s records and discovered a yearslong “pattern of travel fraud,” according to two of the sources. When confronted about the trips, Zinke acknowledged that he spent the time repairing and restoring a home in Whitefish, Montana, and visiting his mother, according to two retired SEAL Team 6 leaders. The future lawmaker eventually told SEAL leaders that the Montana house was where he intended to live after he retired from the Navy.
After Zinke was caught and warned, he continued to travel home and submit the expenses to the Navy. The offense would normally have been serious enough to have ended Zinke’s career, but senior officers at SEAL Team 6 did not formally punish him. Zinke could have been referred for criminal charges, or subjected to a nonjudicial proceeding that would have censured him, likely removing him from the unit. Neither of those things happened, and he was allowed to finish his assignment at the elite unit.
While he received no formal punishment, he was told he would not be allowed to return to the elite unit for future assignments, according to the sources. Zinke continued his career, and he was eventually promoted to Navy commander, the rank he retired at in 2008.
A retired SEAL Team 6 leader said that Zinke wasn’t punished because of concerns over the impact on his family if he was pushed out of the Navy or had his rank reduced.
According to a former SEAL Team 6 leader, the officer who submitted evidence documenting Zinke’s misconduct was “incensed” that he wasn’t punished. Three of the sources said the lack of formal punishment was part of a tradition at SEAL Team 6 of avoiding scandal and failing to adequately hold its officers accountable for criminal behavior and other misconduct.
Zinke was elected to Congress in 2014 as a Republican and was expected to challenge Montana’s democratic senator in 2018.
He has spoken publicly about his career, including in a book published last month about his time in the Navy SEALs. The book details his deployments to Bosnia in the late 1990s as part of SEAL Team 6, but does not mention the misconduct that led to his leaving the unit.
Neither Zinke nor the Trump transition team responded to a request for comment.
Update: Dec. 20, 2016
During his 2014 campaign for Congress, Zinke released his military records, which detail two incidents of unapproved travel to Montana. The June 14, 1999 evaluation cited “lapses in judgement” for travel. Zinke told the Missoulian newspaper that the two trips were taken to scout for possible training locations, and that he was ordered to repay $211 for a flight from Virginia to Montana. Zinke defended his travel to Montana as legitimate, but told the newspaper he was “a little aggressive for a junior officer.”
According to three sources familiar with Zinke’s record at SEAL Team 6, the training research was the excuse he used for the travel, but later admitted to senior SEAL officers that he had, in fact, gone to restore his home. Those same sources said there were more than the two occasions cited in his records, and that SEAL Team 6 officers documented multiple incidents involving fraudulent travel.
All of the sources quoted by The Intercept asked for anonymity because nearly every facet of SEAL Team 6 is classified.