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Mnuchin Used Expensive Taxpayer-Funded Government Jets Instead Of Cheaper Commercial Alternatives Without Providing Appropriate Justification

Published: March 8, 2018

Summary

  • An investigation by the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General found that on seven occasions, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used exorbitantly expensive taxpayer-funded government aircraft, at a total cost of $811,797.81, without providing appropriate justification.

  • This finding is one of a plethora of travel-related scandals and allegations of wrongdoing involving members of Trump's cabinet: E.P.A. Administrator Pruitt, Interior Secretary Zinke, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin have all come under scrutiny for allegedly misusing taxpayer funds when traveling.

  • And former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned because of a scandal in which he wasted taxpayer money on expensive government aircraft and chartered private jets despite the availability of cheaper commercial flights.

  • Such misuse of taxpayer-funds to travel in personal luxury as a public servant is a misuse of public office for private gain, and therefore, constitutes political corruption.

Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton. Photograph: Reuters

Viewing the 2017 Solar Eclipse From Fort Knox

On August 21, 2017, for the first time in 99 years the United States fell into the shadow of a total solar eclipse

The best views of the eclipse could be had along the so called "path of totality" - the path traced by the moon's shadow on earth - which ran from western Oregon to eastern South Carolina. 

On the day of the eclipse, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, happened to take a taxpayer funded government aircraft to Fort Knox which famously houses billions of dollars worth of America's gold reserves and is located in a part of Kentucky that was just outside the path of totality of the 2017 eclipse.

The trip was ostensibly made to "inspect the gold" and appear at a luncheon for the local chamber of commerce

But it later surfaced that, while in Kentucky, Mnuchin took time out to view the eclipse from the lawn of Fort Knox

This resulted in suspicions that the whole trip to Kentucky, made on a taxpayer funded jet, was arranged just to get a good view of the eclipse, with the "inspection" of Fort Knox and luncheon appearance serving as cover for a misuse of taxpayer money for personal leisure. 

Moreover, the trip garnered extra media attention because of a Instagram post about the trip by Louise Linton.

 

In the post, Linton bragged about flying on a government jet and listed off the high-end designer brands she wore on the trip

When a private citizen responded on Instagram criticizing the move, Linton patronizingly fired back at the woman for being less wealthy than her and her husband with statements like "Your life looks cute."

Soon after, Linton made her Instagram account private, concealing the exchange from public view, but another user managed to capture the Linton's response before it was removed.

An Instagram user managed to capture Louise Linton's attack on a private citizen (right) who criticized Linton's decision to post a photo (left) of her descending the steps of a taxpayer-funded government aircraft and listing the designer brands she was wearing on the flight.

The episode attracted media coverage and resulted in extra scrutiny being placed on the use of a government jet for the trip. 

The concerns about possible misuse of a taxpayer funded jet triggered an investigation by the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General. 

Mnuchin Requests A Government Jet For His Honeymoon

On September 13, 2017, ABC News reported that Mnuchin requested the use of a taxpayer funded government jet to ferry him and his wife on their honeymoon trip to Scotland, France, and Italy.  

According to the report, a spokesman for the Air Force told ABC News that the jet would have cost taxpayers $25,000 per hour to operate. 

A transatlantic trip to Europe, travel between Scotland, France, and Italy, and a transatlantic trip back to the United States would therefore have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The justification for the request was reportedly the Treasury Secretary's positions on the National Security Council (NSC) and the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (OTFI). 

The NSC was established in 1947 to advise the president on national security matters and coordinate national security policies across agencies. 

Housed in the Treasury Department, the OTFI was created in 2004 to combat the financing of terrorism and financial crimes such as money laundering and counterfeiting. 

A Treasury Department spokesman reportedly told ABC News that Mnuchin requested the government jets so that he could maintain a secure method of communication in order to discuss national security matters ​related to the NSC and the OTFI. 

The request for a government jet was ultimately withdrawn.

The Daley Memo

On October 4, 2017, the Treasury's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released the results of its investigation into Mnuchin's travel.

During its inquiry, the OIG was told that the Trump administration Treasury Department had continued using the standards set forth by William Daley, a former White House Chief of Staff for Pres. Obama, when requesting the use of government aircraft for Sec. Mnuchin.

The standards, detailed in a memo issued on April 4, 2011, allow an employee of a federal department, such as the Treasury, to travel on a military aircraft only in "rare circumstances" if the travel classifies as a "White House Support Mission."

 

The OIG report states that, for travel by an employee of a federal department to be considered part of a "White House Support Mission" under the guidelines of the April 2011 memo, the trip must:

 

(1) have been directed by the president. 

Travel that generally furthers the president's agenda, or with which the president agrees is not in and of itself considered a "White House Support Mission;" the trip must have been explicitly directed by the president. 

 

and

(2) One or more of the following must be true:

-A commercial airline or aircraft service  cannot meet the traveler's departure and/or arrival requirements within a 24-hour period.

-It is cheaper to use a government aircraft than it is to fly commercial.

-An emergency or national security concern necessitates the use of a government aircraft. 

-"Other compelling operational considerations" necessitate the use of a government aircraft.  

 

If a trip can be shown to satisfy the two above criteria for classification as a "White House Support Mission," the Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Operations can then authorize the use of a military plane.

Results of the OIG Investigation

The OIG investigation found that, from the time of his appointment as Treasury Secretary to the issuing of the OIG's report, Mnuchin had used taxpayer-funded government aircraft seven times and an eighth request - the "honeymoon request" - was withdrawn.

The OIG review cleared Mnuchin of any legal wrongdoing in the Fort Knox trip debacle. It also reports that Mnuchin reimbursed the government for the costs of his wife's travel on the jet. 

In the "honeymoon case," the OIG investigation found that alternative methods of ensuring security of communications were ultimately found and that Mnuchin and Linton ended-up traveling to Europe for their honeymoon on commercial flights which they paid for themselves.

 

However, OIG found substantial process issues related to the requests for the seven times Mnuchin did use government jets.

In six of the seven cases, the trip request asked for classification as a "White House Support Mission" despite no explicit direction by the president for the trip to occur. 

So all but one of the seven cases failed to meet the first criteria for being classified as a White House Support Mission.

Moreover, all seven requests provided little or no justification for the use of a military aircraft beyond vague language about the request being made "due to scheduling, logistics, and secure communications needs." 

The requests therefore made no meaningful effort to prove that they met the second criteria necessary for classification as a White House Support Mission: they did not attempt to show that commercial alternatives were unavailable in the required time-frame, or that it was cheaper to fly on a government aircraft than to fly commercial, or that it was an emergency or a matter of national security, or that "other compelling operational considerations" necessitated the use of a government aircraft. 

The requests therefore did not meet the guidelines set out in the April 2011 memo for requesting use of a military aircraft: the trips were not taken at the explicit direction of the president and no detailed analysis was provided to demonstrate that the trips satisfied one of the other four conditions necessary for them to be considered White House Support Missions.

This despite Mnuchin's Treasury Department itself claiming to use the April 2011 memo as its guideline for determining when to make use of taxpayer-funded government jets.  

The seven trips Mnuchin completed on government aircraft without providing justification for doing so cost taxpayers $811,797.81. 

Assessment

An investigation by the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General found that on seven occasions, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used exorbitantly expensive taxpayer-funded government aircraft, at a total cost of $811,797.81, without providing appropriate justification and without even meeting the Department's own purported criteria for using these aircraft.   

This finding is one of a plethora of travel-related scandals and allegations of wrongdoing involving members of Trump's cabinet: E.P.A. Administrator Pruitt, Interior Secretary Zinke, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin have all come under scrutiny for allegedly misusing taxpayer funds when traveling.

And former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned because of a scandal in which he wasted taxpayer money on expensive government aircraft and chartered private jets despite the availability of cheaper commercial flights.  

Such misuse of taxpayer-funds to travel in personal luxury as a public servant is a misuse of public office for private gain, and therefore, constitutes political corruption.