Where’s Zinke? In­te­rior chief ’s spe­cial flag of­fers clues

Houston Chronicle - - NATION - WASH­ING­TON POST

WASH­ING­TON — At the In­te­rior De­part­ment’s head­quar­ters in down­town Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke has re­vived an ar­cane mil­i­tary rit­ual that no one can re­mem­ber ever hap­pen­ing in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

A se­cu­rity staffer takes the el­e­va­tor to the sev­enth floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a spe­cial sec­re­tar­ial flag when­ever Zinke en­ters the build­ing. When the sec­re­tary goes home for the day or trav­els, the flag — a blue ban­ner em­bla­zoned with the agency’s bi­son seal flanked by seven white stars rep­re­sent­ing the In­te­rior bu­reaus — comes down.

In Zinke’s ab­sence, the rit­ual is re­peated to raise an equally ob­scure flag for Deputy Sec­re­tary David Bern­hardt.

‘Restor­ing honor’

Re­spond­ing this week to ques­tions from The Wash­ing­ton Post, a spokes­woman for Zinke, a for­mer Navy SEAL com­man­der, de­fended the Navy flag-fly­ing tra­di­tion as “a ma­jor sign of trans­parency.”

“Ryan Zinke is proud and hon­ored to lead the De­part­ment of the In­te­rior, and is restor­ing honor and tra­di­tion to the de­part­ment, whether it’s fly­ing the flag when he is in gar­ri­son or restor­ing tra­di­tional ac­cess to pub­lic lands,” press sec­re­tary Heather Swift said in an email.

Zinke, a Stet­son­wear­ing for­mer Mon­tana con­gress­man who has cul­ti­vated an im­age as a rugged out­doors­man, has come un­der a harsh spot­light in re­cent weeks for be­hav­ior crit­i­cized as ex­trav­a­gant for a pub­lic of­fi­cial. The agency’s in­spec­tor gen­eral opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter he ran up bills for travel on char­tered jets and mixed busi­ness with po­lit­i­cal ap­pear­ances, some­times ac­com­pa­nied by his wife, Lola. It’s one of five probes un­der­way of Cab­i­net sec­re­taries’ travel.

Zinke up­set some of the 70,000 em­ploy­ees at the agency that man­ages pub­lic lands by stat­ing that 30 per­cent of the work­ers are “not loyal to the flag” in a speech to oil and gas ex­ec­u­tives. It is un­clear whether the ref­er­ence was lit­eral or fig­u­ra­tive.

Com­mis­sioned coins

Zinke rode to work on horse­back on his first day in of­fice and dis­plays an­i­mal heads on his wood-pan­eled of­fice walls. For a while, he kept a glass-case dis­play of hunt­ing knives but was asked to re­move them be­cause of se­cu­rity risks, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the de­ci­sion.

He has com­mis­sioned com­mem­o­ra­tive coins with his name on them to give to staff and vis­i­tors, but the cost to tax­pay­ers is un­clear.

“We’re talk­ing about Cab­i­net mem­bers and fed­eral build­ings, not the Queen of Eng­land and Buck­ing­ham Place,” said Chris Lu, deputy La­bor sec­re­tary in the Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­fer­ring to the Bri­tish tra­di­tion of an­nounc­ing the queen’s pres­ence by rais­ing her per­sonal heraldic flag.

“If we had a sec­re­tar­ial flag at the Obama La­bor De­part­ment, we never both­ered to lo­cate it or use it,” Lu said.


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