Price’s private-jet travel breaks precedent – Politico

 In U.S.

In a sharp departure from his predecessors, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last week took private jets on five separate flights for official business, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars more than commercial travel.

The secretary’s five flights, which were scheduled between Sept. 13 and Sept. 15, took him to a resort in Maine where he participated in a Q&A discussion with a health care industry CEO, and to community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to internal HHS documents.

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The travel by corporate-style jet comes at a time when other members of the Trump administration are under fire for travel expenditures, and breaks with the practices of Obama-era secretaries Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, who flew commercially while in the continental United States.

Price, a frequent critic of federal spending who has been developing a plan for departmentwide cost savings, declined to comment.

HHS spokespeople declined to confirm details of the flights or respond to questions about who paid for them, with a spokesperson saying only that Price sometimes charters planes when commercial flights aren’t feasible. All three organizations that hosted Price last week — the Massachusetts-based health IT firm athenahealth, Goodwin Community Health Center in New Hampshire and the Mirmont Treatment Center in Pennsylvania — told POLITICO they did not pay for his flights or other travel costs.

“As part of the HHS mission to enhance and protect the health and well-being of the American people, Secretary Price travels on occasion outside Washington to meet face to face with the American people to hear their thoughts and concerns firsthand,” an HHS spokesperson said, adding, “When commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements, charter aircraft can be used for official travel.”

Price’s spokespeople declined to comment on why he considered commercial travel to be unfeasible. On one leg of the trip — a sprint from Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles — there was a commercial flight that departed at roughly the same time: Price’s charter left Dulles at 8:27 a.m., and a United Airlines flight departed for Philadelphia at 8:22 a.m., according to airport records.

Sample round-trip fares for the United flight ranged from $447 to $725 per person on, though the price would have been lower if booked in advance or if Price’s party received government discounts. Similarly priced commercial flights also left from Reagan National Airport and Baltimore Washington International. By contrast, the cost of chartering the plane was roughly $25,000, according to Ultimate Jet Charters, which owns the Embraer 135LR twin jet that ferried Price and about 10 other people to the clinic event.

In addition, Amtrak ran four trains starting at 7 a.m. that left Washington’s Union Station and arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station no later than 9:58 a.m. The least-expensive ticket, on the 7:25 a.m. train, costs $72 when booked in advance. It is just a 125-mile drive from HHS headquarters in downtown Washington to the Mirmont Treatment Center outside of Philadelphia, where Price spoke. Google Maps estimates the drive as about 2½ hours. A one-way trip was estimated by travel planners to be about $30 in gasoline per SUV plus no more than $16 in tolls.

An HHS spokesperson declined to answer questions on how many private charter flights Price has taken since being confirmed as secretary on Feb. 10, but wrote in an emailed response, “Official travel by the secretary is done in complete accordance with Federal Travel Regulations.”

Current and former staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say Price has been taking private jets to travel domestically for months.

Ethics experts say the use of private charters by government officials, while legal, is highly dubious and in most cases a misuse of taxpayer funding.

“I can understand why the secretary might have to use a charter flight to get to a hurricane-devastated region, but Philadelphia is not one of those regions this year,” said Walter Shaub, who was director of the United States Office of Government Ethics until July. “I find it hard to believe he couldn’t find a suitable commercial flight to Philadelphia.”

“This wasteful conduct reflects disdain for the ethical principle of treating public service as a public trust,” said Shaub, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama. “Public office isn’t supposed to come with frivolous perks at taxpayer expense.”

Shaub said that the trips violate the “spirit” of the Federal Travel Regulations, citing the express guidance contained in the regulations that “taxpayers should pay no more than necessary for your transportation.”

Members of the Trump administration have come under scrutiny for excessive use of government travel resources. The president and his family have rung up travel expenses at a faster rate than previous presidential families. The inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a probe into Administrator Scott Pruitt’s frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma. The Treasury Department’s inspector general is looking into Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s use of a government jet on a trip to Fort Knox, Kentucky, that involved viewing the solar eclipse. Most recently, ABC News reported that Mnuchin had requested a government plane to take him on his overseas honeymoon. The request was withdrawn on the grounds that it was unnecessary.

Price is an orthopedic surgeon who served in the U.S. House for 12 years representing a district in suburban Atlanta. After President Donald Trump nominated him to be HHS secretary in January, Price came under fire from Democrats and ethics watchdogs for having made stock trades in health-care companies while serving on a House panel overseeing Obamacare and other health issues.

He has also positioned himself as a champion of fiscal efficiency, backing major spending reductions to agencies he oversees and legislation that would cull hundreds of billions of dollars from health entitlement programs. This month, Price had been scheduled to submit a department reform plan to the White House that is expected to propose new spending and staffing cuts. He also backed a nearly $6 billion proposed cut to the National Institutes of Health in March, and an overall 18 percent spending cut to HHS included in Trump’s first budget proposal.

“Tough choices had to be made to identify and reduce spending within the department,” Price said in a statement to Congress about his budget request. “Our goal is to … [try] to decrease the areas where there are either duplications, redundancies or waste … and get a larger return for the investment of the American taxpayer.”

Price’s travel itinerary last week included five charter flights that charter operators estimated would cost at least $60,000. The itinerary, according to airport records and sources with knowledge of Price’s travels, began on Wednesday, Sept. 13 (arrows do not represent actual flight paths):

• Price and staff took a private charter that left Dulles that Wednesday at 2:26 p.m. and arrived in Waterville, Maine, at 3:37 p.m., where he then traveled to the Point Lookout resort and spent the night.

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