Former HHS secretary Tom Price’s air travel wasted $341000 in government funds, watchdog says


Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price repeatedly failed to follow federal requirements during his travels, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds, according to the internal watchdog of the department he once led.

The inspector general’s report, released Friday morning, comes 10 months after Price, an orthopedic surgeon and former congressman from Georgia, resigned under pressure amid criticism for his extensive use of private jets while traveling on government business.

“Our rigorous review of former HHS Secretary Price’s use of chartered, military, and commercial aircraft found that 20 out of 21 trips did not comply with applicable federal regulations and HHS policies and procedures, resulting in waste of at least $341,000 in federal funds,” Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said in a statement. “We recommend the Office of the Secretary review the lack of compliance with federal requirements and determine appropriate actions to recoup the travel costs.”

In its 58-page report, the department’s inspector general determined that for chartered airplane trips, Price’s office did not compare the cost of these flights with commercial travel. In one case, a chartered one-way flight from Seattle back to Washington in August 2017 cost $121,500, while an average commercial flight would have totaled $2,490. Even for a chartered flight, the report concluded, Price’s office could have selected an option saving more than $45,000.

The 21 trips reviewed by the inspector general totaled about $1.2 million in travel costs, the watchdog said.

Eric Hargan, the department’s deputy secretary, said in a statement Friday that “the work of an audit is to review compliance with procedures, not make legal conclusions. As a matter of law, none of the travel at issue was unauthorized.”

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Hargan noted that the department had instituted new travel review policies since the period covered by the inspector general’s report.

“HHS and this administration are dedicated to serving the American people and being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Hargan said. “In furtherance of this goal, the department has instituted the most rigorous controls on travel in the organization’s history.”

Price’s repeated reliance on charters during his time in office between February and September of 2017 — which included trips as short as between Washington and Philadelphia — were a striking contrast with the travel habits of his two immediate predecessors from the Obama administration.

The HHS inspector general’s office began its inquiry into the expensive trips while Price was still secretary. When word of the inquiry surfaced, he initially said that he would suspend such trips until the inquiry was complete.

Price then altered his stance to say that he would stop taking such flights. He issued a statement in which he said that his private-charter travel had been approved by legal and HHS officials but that he regretted “the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.”

The following day, Sept. 29, Trump first told reporters he considered Price a “fine man” but that he “didn’t like the optics.” He later said, “I’m not happy, I can tell you that.”

By day’s end, after the president had chastised him in a private meeting, Price had handed in to the White House a four-paragraph resignation letter. It said he regretted “that the recent events have created a distraction” from the administration’s objectives. “Success on these issues is more important than any one person,

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Price’s downfall occurred more rapidly than that of some other top aides to Trump, who held their grip on power after evidence of ethical lapses first appeared. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt resigned last week, as roughly a dozen federal investigations into his behavior swirled around him, nearly a year after the first reports of questionable behavior involving his own expensive work travel and the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office.

Unlike Pruitt, who was a confidant of the president, Price had been on weak ground with Trump for other reasons. The White House trusted him to be the administration’s main emissary to Capitol Hill in working with the Republican-led Congress last year to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act — a central ambition of the president since his 2016 campaign for office.

A year ago, Trump joked that he would fire Price if he could not persuade Congress to pass such legislation. When GOP senators, torn by internal divisions failed at the repeal, the president was angry with his HHS secretary.

Despite his dozen years in the House, Price also was regarded as aloof by lawmakers, ignoring some of their questions of HHS and seldom making the rounds on Capitol Hill. And his Senate confirmation hearings in January of 2017, Democrats grilled him about his financial investments in health-related companies while advocating legislation that could have benefited them.

Price has been succeeded at HHS by Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive with extensive experience at the department during the George W. Bush presidency.

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