The tip about the charter-flight reliance of former health and human services secretary Tom Price came to Politico’s Rachana Pradhan in May. A reporter for the site’s subscription service, Politico Pro, she started work on the story and later invited her colleague Dan Diamond to team up on a monster reportorial task: Price’s department didn’t release previews of the secretary’s travel schedule; charter flights are tricky to track and price; they were working on a story that the authorities didn’t want to see published.
Over the course of the summer, the duo moved the story forward, though haltingly. “There were periods of probably a week or two where we just couldn’t get any more,” Pradhan said.
“We weren’t on the aviation beat,” said Diamond. “The HHS team is really tight-lipped, very private on even sharing public information about the secretary’s travel.”
Then came September. Somehow — via “reporting,” is all Pradhan would say — Politico knew enough to head over to Dulles International Airport on Sept. 15 in an effort to add some old-world eyewitness work to the project. The duo stuck together in the morning, as Price and his crew left Dulles for Philadelphia on a charter flight. They didn’t get the sort of visual evidence they’d come to gather.
So in the afternoon, for the return of the charter flight, they split up. Diamond was on his feet, at the terminal, while Pradhan drove a car along the road that hugs the charter-flight area of Dulles. As the flight was approaching landing, Diamond was “counting down” to Pradhan — an air-travel-checking website assisted them with flight information (though for other flights, Diamond said, such sites didn’t help much). The countdown from Diamond signaled to Pradhan when she should drive past the charter-flight location.
Diamond: “I was tracking on my phone and standing in the main terminal counting down when the plane would land so Rachana could drive at the appropriate time past the tarmac.” As he moved around, he spotted the SUV escort pulling up to the charter-flight area.
Pradhan: “I was in the car and I was driving and I leaned my head forward past a row of bushes.” She knew that she’d have only, like, “30 seconds” to get a clear view.
The two health-care reporters were quite familiar with Price, with his hair, with his stature and so on. “He’s got some distinguishable physical features,” Pradhan said. “He’s not just like your average Joe Schmo.”
They had it nailed.
“I saw him,” Pradhan said, noting that she couldn’t snap a photo because she was driving. Diamond said he believes he spotted Kellyanne Conway through the window of an SUV. The facts showed up in these bullet points at Politico:
• On Sept. 15, Price, accompanied by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, left Dulles aboard a charter at 8:27 a.m. and touched down at Philadelphia International Airport at 9:01 a.m. for a scheduled visit to Mirmont Treatment Center, a local addiction treatment facility.
• Also on Sept. 15, Price, Conway and other staff departed Philadelphia aboard a charter plane at 12:39 p.m. and touched down at Dulles at 1:19 p.m., where the plane was met on the tarmac by two SUVs and a police escort.
There was a great deal more to this project. Politico constructed a database seeking to piece together Price’s schedules and itineraries. To fill out that spreadsheet, it sought information from the HHS website, from organizations that hosted Price, and various other sources — though you might suppose that the government in a proud democracy like the United States would provide all that information upon request. Politico requested travel documents via the Freedom of Information Act, but hasn’t gotten the goods yet.
To piece together the cost of the domestic flights — which, ultimately, tallied about $400,000 — the reporting team checked charter company estimates as well as federal contracts, said Pradhan. As the team approached a publication date, Politico gave them more relief from their routine duties; across the Politico operation, there are 20 staffers covering health care in one capacity or another. And once they got their initial report to the public, new sources and avenues of inquiry opened up. HHS officials became more cooperative as well, providing, for example, information on Price’s travel in advance.
The story snowballed, feeding off of HHS’s explanation that Price needed private-jet travel because of his insane schedule and because he needed to get in touch with regular Americans: the mainstream media followed Politicos scoops, President Trump declared that he wasn’t happy with the revelations, and Price resigned Friday, sealing a clean coup for the 10-year-old site.
It’s a victory, too, for very narrowly focused beat reporting. Pradhan’s work for Politico Pro brings her close to the nitty-gritty of health care, and that’s where the story germinated. “This is the agency we cover, these are the people we report about whether in this context or not,” Pradhan said. “It wasn’t a White House story, it wasn’t a Congress story.” Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico’s editor, noted via email, “Our newsroom thrives because it has deeply sourced, talented journalists not only at the White House and Congress, but covering the policy apparatus and the inner workings of government throughout the agencies — in this case HHS.”
The following is an observation of the Erik Wemple Blog, not mentioned by anyone at Politico for this story: That they would be the folks who brought Price down is a moment of extraordinary investigative reportorial justice. As this blog noted with great anger back in January, Price, in his confirmation hearings, cast the most scurrilous slime on Politico. After a senator cited a Politico report from 2012 — as well as a report from Talking Points Memo — indicating that Price thought it was a terrible idea to guarantee coverage of preexisting conditions, Price attacked the media: “Oh well, now there’s a reliable source.”
Yes, quite reliable.
Speaking of which, the contemporary political environment is merciless toward misfiring investigative projects. Did Politico’s bosses take that into account? “The editorial team,” notes Brown in an email, “working hand in hand with Dan and Rachana, worked for months on this story. It was reported carefully and deliberately and as such was impervious to that sort of blowback.”