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Former HHS secretary Tom Price’s air travel wasted $341,000 in government funds, watchdog says

Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in the White House on June 21, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price repeatedly failed to follow federal requirements during his travels while in office, 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 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.”

Price’s office defended his flights as avoiding ‘wasting four hours in an airport’

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 a cheaper 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 of Health and Human Services’ 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.”

A spokesman for Price released a statement Friday noting that the former secretary was not interviewed by the inspector general’s office and highlighted Hargan’s remark that none of the travel was “unauthorized.”

“Media coverage inaccurately states the report takes issue with Dr. Price’s actions,” the statement said. “In fact, the report addresses overall functions of Department staff charged with administering travel.”

Price is among numerous current or former members of President Trump’s administration who have been the focus of complaints and investigations centered on their use of government funds and other behaviors in office.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt resigned last week after news reports revealed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, his efforts to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife, and his $50-a-night condo rented from a lobbyist, as well as first-class plane flights. These behaviors prompted more than a dozen inquiries into his spending and management practices.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March after scandal over luxury-travel expenses; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has been scrutinized for a $31,000 dining set ordered for his office and his family’s involvement in his department; Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke drew criticism for a $6,000 helicopter ride to meet Vice President Pence for a horseback ride; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of a government jet on a trip to view the solar eclipse last year is under review; and on Thursday, the Office of Government Ethics reprimanded Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for failing to divest himself of stock holdings.

Most of those officials remain, but Price left the administration last year.

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.”

HHS watchdog launched investigation after media reports revealed flights

The report includes a letter from Heather Flick, the department’s acting assistant director for administration, sent to the inspector general last month in which she said the department agreed that there were “instances of unnecessary spending” in how Price traveled.

A spokesperson for the department said on Friday it would ask the Justice Department to explore whether there are legal grounds for recouping the money.

Price’s repeated reliance on charters during his time in office between February and September of 2017 — which included making the short trip between Washington and Philadelphia at a cost of nearly $15,000 — were a striking contrast with the travel habits of his two immediate predecessors from the Obama administration.

The inspector general’s office said its report was based on examining how Price’s flights were authorized, interviews inside and outside the department, and reviews of vouchers, receipts and manifests.

The watchdog looked into Price’s use of chartered planes and found that none would have cost less than a commercial flight, describing the difference in cost as “extravagant, careless, or needless.”

While the Seattle flight stood out for the sheer price tag — it accounted for about a quarter of the nearly half a million dollars it cost just for Price’s 12 chartered flights — the inspector general also decried “wasteful spending” on other chartered flights.

The watchdog then listed some examples, including a trip to Nashville on June 6, 2017, that cost $17,760, which the report said had been justified because of a possible White House meeting that same day. But while the secretary’s office knew by June 4 there would be no White House meeting, it continued with that flight.

Later that month, the report continued, Price traveled to San Diego, Aspen and then a store near Salt Lake City over a three-day period for about three-and-a-half hours of “official engagements.” While the time frame over multiple days would have allowed for commercial flights, the government instead spent $50,420 to book chartered planes.

After Price’s use of private jets was first revealed by Politico, his office sought to justify the practice. A spokeswoman at one point defended it as “Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people” and not “wasting four hours in an airport.”

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 and pledged to repay the government more than $51,000 — a fraction of the costs of the travel. (According to the inspector general, he wound up paying back $59,390, covering some of his travel as well as that of his wife.) Price issued a statement saying 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.”

Scott Pruitt is out at the EPA. His ethics probes might live on.

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 was regarded as aloof by lawmakers, ignoring some of their questions about HHS and seldom making the rounds on Capitol Hill. In his Senate confirmation hearings in January of 2017, Democrats grilled him about his financial investments in health-related companies while he advocated 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.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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