The government wasted at least $341,000 on pricey travel for ousted Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — who booked expensive charter flights without considering cheaper scheduled airlines, an agency watchdog charged on Friday.
A long-awaited report by the HHS inspector general accused the department of violating federal travel rules, which state that officials should book trips in the most cost-efficient way for taxpayers.
The government spent nearly $1.2 million on Price’s travel expenses during his seven months in office — including upwards of $700,000 in military flights on two foreign and domestic trips, as well as $480,000 for his domestic trips by private chartered aircraft, the IG said.
The IG charged that the federal agency “improperly used federal funds related to Sec. Price’s government travel.” Of the 12 trips reviewed by investigators, only one complied with federal travel requirements — and none of the charter flights complied.
The report also questioned Price’s claims that his official schedule prevented him from flying commercial. Additionally, investigators claimed that his office did not always book the lowest-cost trip — and in one case, the difference between his flight and the cheapest option was nearly $46,000.
For six of his trips, according to the report, Price either started or ended his travel in Georgia, his home state. Georgia was his most frequent travel destination outside his official duty station in Washington, DC.
In addition, HHS paid more than $11,500 for commercial flights for Price’s trip to China, Vietnam and Japan — but the pol instead flew on military transport at an expense of more than $430,000, the watchdog charged. The agency lost track of what it had spent on the commercial ticket until the investigators pointed it out.
Price has since apologized for his alleged overspending and repaid the government nearly $60,000 — but the report pushed authorities to seek full recovery of the $341,000 it deemed wasteful spending.
HHS agreed with most of the inspector general’s recommendations and requested detail on the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the watchdog said it should recover from Price’s travel expenses.
In a statement Friday, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said the department “understands the auditor’s concern that the processes and record keeping regarding travel could have been more comprehensive.” Since the period examined by the audit, he continued, the agency has instituted new travel review procedures for all political appointees.
Still, he argued 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,” Hargan said. “HHS and this administration are dedicated to serving the American people and being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. In furtherance of this goal, the department has instituted the most rigorous controls on travel in the organization’s history.”
In a statement issued to The Post, Price’s spokesman Nick Peters said that the IG did not interview Price, or attempt to get an interview. In addition, the IG’s report focuses on “the overall functions of Department staff charged with administering travel,” rather than Price’s actions specifically, as presented in some media coverage, he said.
But “there is no indication in the IG report that the paperwork and regulatory issues of Department staff were anything other than good faith mistakes,” Peters said.
“Dr. Price salutes the professional career staff of the Department for their tireless dedication to its critical mission on behalf of the American people,” he added.
Price quit his post this past fall after his travel expenses drew the ire of President Trump.
Trump had been telling pals that Price — a critic of government spending in Congress — had become a distraction, overshadowing his agenda and undermining his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington, sources told AP at the time.
He’d also told people close to him that he believed Price’s run of bad headlines had stepped on the administration’s launch of its tax plan.
And the president also believed that Price didn’t do enough to sell the ill-fated GOP plan to “repeal and replace” the Obama health law.
“He’s a very fine man,” Trump told reporters shortly before Price submitted his resignation. “I certainly don’t like the optics. I’m not happy, I can tell you that. I’m not happy.”
Price was a successful orthopedic surgeon before winning a congressional seat in the Atlanta suburbs. He later became one of the top GOP experts on budget and health care issues.
With Post wires