How We Found Tom Price’s Private Jets

 In Politics

The first tip came from a casual conversation with a source back in May: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was using private jets for routine travel, possibly in violation of federal travel rules that allowed such flights only when commercial options weren’t available.

But it was a tip and little else – no times, no names of charter services and not even a schedule from a notoriously secretive cabinet secretary.

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So we embarked on a months-long effort to win the trust of sources, both in and outside of HHS, who were in a position to know about the secretary’s travel. This required numerous meetings and phone calls, sometimes after hours, seeking to confirm what the original source acknowledged was just second-hand information. Neither of us had ever reported a story of this difficulty before.

Price’s lack of transparency made our job harder. In the initial months following his confirmation on Feb. 10, he hadn’t made his schedule public, unlike past secretaries. Bare-bones reports of events outside Washington usually were posted on the agency’s website after they happened. But there were few places and times – not enough information to take either to charter services, sources inside HHS or anyone else in a position to know about the flights. And we faced a further problem: Because the planes Price was taking were private, their arrivals and departures weren’t recorded on public databases.

That meant we had to recreate Price’s schedule from scratch if we were to have any hope of matching his trips to chartered flights. We reviewed the HHS summaries of Price’s meetings. We scoured news sites for reports of Price speeches outside Washington. We obsessively tracked his appearances on social media. Putting all this information together, we built a database of Price’s trips.

That task became somewhat easier in July, when Price’s public relations staff began sending out notices to reporters of upcoming trips—a common practice in previous administrations—but it wasn’t until late August that the reports of the secretary’s travel plans became more regular.

This created an opportunity to stake out the airport and watch Price get on and off the plane, the surest way to determine that he was using charter aircraft on dates and times when commercial flights were equally available. But which airport was Price traveling from?

There were several missed opportunities, when we either went to the wrong airport or the right airport at the wrong time. Then, in September, we received an official notice from HHS that Price would be traveling to the Philadelphia area to meet with people affected by addiction to opioid painkillers. By the morning of Sept. 15 — when Price took a private jet to travel between Washington and Philadelphia, a distance of roughly 125 miles — we had figured out that Price was using the private jet terminal at Dulles International Airport, 28 miles outside of Washington.

That Friday morning, we camped out at the Dulles charter terminal. A little after 8 a.m., we saw two SUVs and a police escort roll directly onto the tarmac, as the cars discharged passengers who then boarded a distinctive 30-seat charter plane with a golden belly. By 8:30 a.m., we watched the charter jet take off, heading directly north, and tracked it to Philadelphia using FlightAware, an airline tracking website.

It was strong, but it wasn’t enough. We hadn’t seen the faces of Price or the other passengers — including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who went on that opioid trip. Using social media and help from sources, we kept tabs on the movements of Price and Conway in Philadelphia, tracing when they wrapped up the event and headed to the airport.

By the time Price boarded the private jet at Philadelphia International Airport for the return trip to Dulles in early afternoon, we had figured out how to get the best view of the Dulles tarmac: Rachana drove by the charter jet terminal, timing her approach so she could best see the jet field, while Dan stood in the airport’s main terminal, tracking the plane through his phone and counting down its arrival to Rachana, before hustling out to a patch of concrete that offered a view of the tarmac, too.

It was enough. We saw the distinctive golden plane taxi around to the private-jet terminal. We saw a man with Price’s build and shock of white hair walking across the tarmac. We saw the SUVs and police escort come out to greet him and the other passengers before speeding them away.

After that, we pieced together his itinerary for the entire week by calling sources, looking for photos of events on social media and compiling HHS notices for his travel plans. We even called charter plane companies — including the one that Price had used — to figure out how much the trips cost. And we purchased flight data that offered the precise times for departures and arrivals of flights to validate what sources had said was Price’s schedule. That also enabled us to compare Price’s actual departures and arrivals with commercial flight options, train travel and even the cost of traveling by SUV. This was especially important: We wanted to compare the cost of Price’s jets to that of commercial transportation, revealing a potential waste of taxpayer dollars.

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