WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke could have avoided spending $12,375 on a charter flight following a speech last year to a hockey team owned by a former campaign contributor, according to an audit by the agency’s internal watchdog.

The Interior Department’s inspector general singled out the flight as it released the results of an investigation into Zinke’s travel last year. Although Zinke’s use of chartered flights and U.S. military aircraft during that time frame “generally followed” relevant rules and laws, the June 26, 2017, post-speech trip from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, “could have been avoided,” the inspector general said.

The flight whisked Zinke to his home state of Montana after he delivered a leadership speech on teamwork to dozens of players recently drafted by the Las Vegas’ National Hockey League team, the Golden Knights. The team is owned by billionaire Bill Foley, a chairman of Cannae Holdings Inc. and a donor to Zinke’s past congressional campaigns. Before becoming Interior secretary, Zinke served as Montana’s lone representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The dinnertime event ended after the last commercial flight had left the airport, and Zinke was scheduled to be in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, the following morning for an annual meeting of the Western Governors’ Association. So the Interior Department turned to a charter flight to transport Zinke and four Interior Department personnel — at a cost of $2,475 each — from Las Vegas to Kalispell.

But the department had options to avoid that pricey charter, including working with the Golden Knights to change the time of Zinke’s speech during its weeklong camp for newly drafted players — an idea the inspector general said was never explored. Department ethics officials also lacked relevant information when they approved the trip, including two key details: that Zinke’s speech was not tied to his government role and that Foley had donated to Zinke’s congressional campaigns.

“If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight,” the inspector general found. “Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion.”

Interior Department spokesman Heather Swift said the report confirms “what was known all along,” that the use of chartered aircraft followed relevant law, policy and regulations. “In every instance reviewed, the secretary’s staff consulted with and sought prior approval from the career ethics officials and travel lawyers, and that we follow their expert advice,” Swift said by email.

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