Iowa Sen. Ernst among those demanding answers about Trump cabinet travel expenses

Joni Ernst photo from her campaign website

(CNN) — The White House held private meetings with four Cabinet-level officials last month to scold them for embarrassing stories about questionable ethical behavior at their respective agencies, sources familiar with the sessions tell CNN.

Internal watchdogs have launched at least nine audits, reviews or investigations across several Cabinet agencies, and stories about first-class travel, expensive office furniture, and internal strife have become commonplace.

On Monday, U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Gary Peters (D-Michigan) sent a joint letter to the Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Mulvaney, seeking to find out if cabinet members complied with federal travel spending policies.

“It is our duty to provide oversight and ensure that taxpayer money is spent responsibly, without waste, fraud, or abuse,” the letter stated. “We owe it to the American people to ensure with the utmost vigilance that tax dollars are being spent appropriately.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt all met with officials from the White House counsel’s office and the Cabinet liaison.

The meetings, held at chief of staff John Kelly’s request, were intended to provide “a clear message that optics matter,” the sources said.

The White House gave the agencies a set of guidelines in a document titled “creating a culture of compliance,” according to portions of the document obtained by CNN.

Among the highlighted advice:

• “You are the best guardian of your reputation. Your recordkeeping practices must be designed with a purpose to prove innocence at the complaint phase or with the press.”

• “Even if legal, does not mean you should do it — always consider optics.”

• “Optics questions: Does the event or travel further the President’s priorities, your department or agency’s mission; or, does it appear recreational or entertainment in nature.”

• “Remember, an ethics opinion matters only if the ethics officer received all of the information.”

The White House declined to comment.

During the meetings, the White House officials asked agencies to flag any possible problems, including ongoing investigations or audits.

But shortly after the session with Zinke, CNN published a report with several examples that ethics watchdogs say raise questions about whether Zinke is misusing his travel privileges, despite receiving approval from the department’s lawyer and ethics officer.

The White House was disappointed after meeting with Zinke because his agency failed to mention the story, of which Interior was aware and quoted a department spokesperson on the record, the source familiar told CNN.

Asked about the White House’s unhappiness, an Interior spokesperson who declined to be named, “this is such a nothing-burger.”

The person added, “Cabinet secretaries and staff meet with the White House constantly about a number of issues to include advancing policy priorities and strategy.”

In his meeting, VA Secretary Shulkin was told he could no longer discuss purging agency employees after he told Politico he had permission from the White House to remove insubordinates. He was also advised that stories about “palace intrigue” were unacceptable, a source familiar said.

When asked about the meeting, the VA public affairs office replied in a statement: “President Trump tasked Secretary Shulkin with reforming the VA so it could better serve the men and women who sacrificed to protect our country. Many reforms have already been enacted, many more are still needed, but nothing will distract the President, the Secretary and the Department from finding the best ways to provide care and benefits to our country’s heroes.”

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox denied CNN’s characterization of Pruitt’s White House meeting.

“This is entirely untrue,” Wilcox said. “Administrator Pruitt has regular meetings with a number of officials at the White House. Throughout those meetings, the White House has offered continued support of EPA, to help the Agency succeed in furthering the President’s environmental agenda.”

HUD did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, Carson canceled a $31,000 dining room furniture purchase after a whistleblower said she was demoted when she refused to break the law and overspend for redecorating Carson’s office. The agency has denied the allegations. HUD’s inspector general is also looking into the role Carson’s family has played in department business.

It’s unclear what answers the agencies provided when asked to spot potential problems, but there are open reviews and inquiries across several agencies.

EPA’s internal watchdog is investigating the frequency, cost and extent of Pruitt’s travel following reports of his many flights to his home state of Oklahoma and that he used taxpayer funds on first-class flights and luxury hotels that exceeded his predecessors. EPA has cited security concerns as the reason Pruitt flies first class.

Zinke’s travel is also under investigation by both the Office of Special Counsel and the Interior Department’s inspector general, including a visit he had with a hockey team owned by a former donor to his 2014 campaign.

Interior Dept. explains $139K doors for secretary’s office

The VA’s inspector general recently released a damning report about Shulkin’s July 2017 trip to Europe. The report concluded that Shulkin misused taxpayer funds and inappropriately accepted Wimbledon tickets, and that his then-chief of staff doctored an email to justify the department paying for his wife’s airfare to accompany him. Shulkin has said he intends to comply with all the IG recommendations, even though he disagreed with them.

In addition, multiple sources tell CNN that the secretary had been locked in battle with a group of Trump administration officials, who Shulkin says have been working to push him out of the department.