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HHS Secretary Tom Price Used Taxpayer Money To Pay For Luxury Travel

Published: February 23, 2018

Relevant Federal Regulations

Federal Travel Regulations state

 

"Government travelers are required to exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business when making official travel arrangements, and therefore, should consider the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs." 

 41 C.F.R. §301-10.123

Politico Reveals Tom Price Has Been Unnecessarily Chartering Private Jets

In a series of revelations in September of 2017, Politico exposed profligate spending by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on private jets and military aircraft, despite the availability of cheaper commercial flights. 

On September 19, 2017, Politico broke the story that Price had taken five flights on chartered private jets in the preceding week, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more than if he had taken available commercial flights.

Then on September 21, 2017 Politico reported that Price had taken at least 24 flights on private chartered jets using over $300,000 in taxpayer money since early May 2017. 

Such frequent use of chartered flights was a departure from Price's immediate predecessors who only flew commercial in the continental U.S. 

According to Politico's research, many of the private jets Price chartered were for trips between large cities with frequent commercial flights between them on offer for much cheaper than the cost of private jets.

Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway also joined Price on several of these chartered flights. 

On September 23, 2017, Politico followed up with a report that Price had taken 2 more chartered flights since its initial revelations about Price's use of private jets.

 

That brought the total number of chartered flights Price had taken between early May 2017 and September 2017 to at least 26, costing taxpayers over $400,000.

 

Within days of revealing Price's use of chartered jets despite the availability of cheaper commercial flights, Politico further reported that Price's trips mixed government business with personal matters. 

 

On September 26, 2017, it revealed that, in addition to the official government business of attending medical conferences and health summits, Price also met with family and longtime colleagues.   

Then on September 28, 2017, Politico reported that the White House permitted Price, accompanied by his wife, to travel on military aircraft to Europe and Africa in the spring of 2017 and to Asia in the summer of 2017, at a cost of over $500,000 to the taxpayer. 

This was in addition to Price's 26 chartered flights and brought the total cost to taxpayers for Price's travels from May 2017 through September 2017 to over $1 million.  

 

Politico's reporting also stated that Price's immediate predecessor, Sylvia Mathews Burwell had previously traveled on a military aircraft for a trip to Cuba.

"Repaying the Taxpayer"

On September 28, 2017, Price put out a statement saying that he would "write a personal check to the US treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won't pay a dime for my seat on those flights" [emphasis added].  

What did Price think was the appropriate amount to compensate taxpayers for the roughly $1 million in costs incurred as a result of his chartered flights? $51,887.37. 

Price did not compensate the taxpayer for the entire cost of the private jet flights, but rather for his individual seat on the flight, as if the government was going to charter these private flights no matter what and Price just happened to take a seat on them.

But of course, this is not the case. 

Resignation

On September 29, 2017, Price finally resigned his position as HHS Secretary as a result of the revelations. 

Assessment

Tom Price appears to have violated federal regulations on using cheapest means of travel that suits the government's needs. 

Rather than use available commercial flights, Price chose to spend taxpayer money to travel on private jets and military aircraft.

Unfortunately, Tom Price is not the only member of the Trump administration to come under scrutiny for his use of taxpayer money to travel in luxury or mix work and personal affairs: E.P.A. Administrator Pruitt, Interior Secretary Zinke, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin have all come under criticism for allegedly misusing taxpayer funds when traveling.

And an investigation by the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General found that on seven occasions, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used expensive taxpayer-funded government aircraft without providing appropriate justification, costing taxpayers approximately $811,000. 

 

And the Politico article did not detail if and why Sylvia Mathews Burwell was justified in taking a military aircraft on a trip to Cuba. 

To increase transparency around the use of taxpayer money for charter or military aircraft travel, a future government should implement ethics reforms which require periodic public reports put together by, say, the Office of Government Ethics, that detail which executive branch officials used charter or military aircraft for travel within a given period of time, how much it cost, and why commercial alternatives were deemed not feasible.