Price’s private-jet travels included visits with colleagues, lunch with son
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, an exclusive Georgia resort where he and his wife own land, a day and a half before he addressed a group of local doctors at a medical conference that he and his wife have long attended.
The St. Simons Island trip was one of two taxpayer-funded flights on private jets in which Price traveled to places where he owns property, and paired official visits with meetings with longtime colleagues and family members. On June 6, HHS chartered a jet to fly Price to Nashville, Tennessee, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides. Price toured a medicine dispensary and spoke to a local health summit organized by a longtime friend. He also had lunch with his son, an HHS official confirmed.
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An HHS official said both the Georgia and Tennessee trips were for official government business and were paid for by the department.
Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics official for President George W. Bush, said that Price’s trips may have been legal but were ethically dubious.
“To use a charter flight on something that combines personal and government business, I think it’s highly unprofessional and really inappropriate,” Painter said – especially if personal business represented and disproportionate part of the trip.
HHS has long maintained that Price, whose use of chartered aircraft is under investigation by the HHS inspector general, has not violated Federal Travel Regulations, which state that officials can only charter a plane if “no scheduled commercial airline service is reasonably available (i.e., able to meet your departure and/or arrival requirements within a 24-hour period, unless you demonstrate that extraordinary circumstances require a shorter period) to fulfill your agency’s travel requirement.”
Like some others of the 26 flights that Price took on corporate jets since May identified by a POLITICO review, the trip to Tennessee appears to have occurred despite the existence of multiple commercial flight options. The trip to Georgia, while less direct, also could have been accomplished with a routine connecting flight through Atlanta’s busy international airport.
On August 4, Price flew a Dassault Falcon 2000 twin jet from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had given a speech to a flu vaccine manufacturer, to Brunswick Golden Isles Airport, which is about a half-hour drive from St. Simons Island. It was the same plane that had shuttled him between five states in four days that HHS had chartered through Classic Air Charter for more than $86,000, according to federal contracts.
The plane arrived in Brunswick at 4:02 p.m., the afternoon before the start of the two-day Medical Association of Georgia retreat and roughly 40 hours before Price addressed the group, according to airport records and people familiar with the event. At about the same time, there were connecting commercial flights from Raleigh to Brunswick via Atlanta that would have gotten Price to St. Simons Island that evening.
Painter questioned why Price needed to travel on Friday afternoon to St. Simons Island when his speech wasn’t until Sunday.
“One night is appropriate for a speech in Georgia, not two nights,” Painter said, given that Price was traveling around the East Coast.
The Nashville trip offered even more commercial options. On June 6, Price took a Learjet 55 — a $17,760 roundtrip flight, according to a federal contract — that departed from Washington Dulles International Airport at 9:12 a.m. ET and touched down in Nashville at 9:44 a.m. CT.
Two commercial flights that morning followed similar itineraries. An American Airlines plane departed Reagan National Airport at 9:05 a.m. ET and landed in Nashville at 9:39 a.m. CT. A Southwest Airlines flight left Baltimore-Washington International at 9:18 a.m. ET and arrived in Nashville at 9:54 a.m. CT.
Commercial airline tickets with government discounts would have cost between $102 and $333 per person roundtrip between the two cities, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.
The afternoon event was the first-ever Healthy Tennessee Summit organized by Dr. Manny Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon and prominent local Republican who’s met with Trump and was featured as an “Obamacare victim” in a White House video posted in June.
Sethi, who says he hasn’t given money to Price, has nonetheless donated $15,000 to the Tennessee Republican Party since May 2016; the party’s Twitter feed hailed Sethi last year as “one of our closest friends.” Sethi also said that Price has been a mentor for years.
In his remarks, Price reminisced about his longtime fondness for Sethi, and both men referenced Price’s personal ties to the city — chiefly, that his only son went to Vanderbilt University and still lives in the city. Price also owns a condominium in Nashville valued at more than $150,000, according to county records.
Price’s agenda in Nashville, which was planned just days in advance and came as Senate Republicans were trying to pass a bill repealing major parts of Obamacare, was also lightly scheduled, say individuals with knowledge of Price’s travels. Price spent less than 90 minutes combined between his two scheduled events — about an hour touring the Dispensary of Hope medication dispensary in the morning, and about 20 minutes giving his speech at the Healthy Tennessee Summit in the afternoon.
The trip was so last-minute that Price wasn’t part of the summit’s formal meeting agenda; attendees were given a handout with the secretary’s biography. Reporters weren’t informed when Price would be speaking until less than an hour before he arrived at the summit. The meeting website still lists an outdated agenda.