After Tom Price was sworn in as health and human services secretary, the Georgia Republican faced an inconvenience known to millions of Americans: His flight was delayed, an aide said, and he was forced to spend hours at an airport. The delay left Price a no-show at an early public appearance his office helped plan.
Price knew well the pain of flying to and from Washington as a member of Congress for 12 years. But now he was the head of a trillion-dollar federal agency and one of President Trump’s point men to fulfill the campaign promise of repealing the Affordable Care Act. Flight delays and no-shows would not do.
So began a practice in Price’s office of turning to private, chartered jet travel, aides say, to ferry the Cabinet official to and from meetings around the country — often at a cost to taxpayers of thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars, per trip.
Price’s office this week has sought to justify his use of chartered jets, first reported Wednesday by Politico, saying that the secretary’s office has routinely evaluated the most effective way for him to travel and has turned to chartered flights when necessary for Price to manage one of the largest executive branch agencies while also staying grounded with voters.
“This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people,” said Charmaine Yoest, his assistant secretary for public affairs. “Wasting four hours in an airport and having the secretary cancel his event is not a good use of taxpayer money.”
Revelations of Price’s luxury travel, however, have drawn swift criticism from Democratic members of Congress. Late Wednesday, the ranking Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees wrote to the inspector general of Price’s agency, saying the reported flights appear to violate federal rules and policies. They demanded an immediate investigation.
The flights aboard private jets — including one Price took last week in a cabin with high-backed leather chairs and a kitchen — have even led some senior administration officials to distance the White House from Price’s travel practices.
A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Thursday that the White House did not approve Price’s travel on chartered planes. Politico also quoted an unnamed White House official questioning Price’s effectiveness this week as he has traveled outside D.C. amid a last-minute push in the Capitol to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Politico found at least 24 flights that Price has taken between May and Tuesday on private chartered planes. The news organization cited agency officials and internal agency documents, saying the travel cost taxpayers approximately $300,000.
A chartered plane The Post identified flying on a route and itinerary matching a trip reported by Politico was a Dassault Falcon 900, featuring plush, roomy seats, a full galley kitchen and onboard WiFi, according to pictures and details provided by an online booking company. The company did not return a call or email Thursday seeking comment.
Air traffic control records reviewed by The Post show the flight took off from Dulles International Airport and touched down in Maine on Sept. 13. Price traveled to a mountaintop lodge there for a meeting and departed the next day on another chartered flight for an appearance in New Hampshire, Politico reported.
In a statement Thursday night, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) called the flights hypocritical as Price has worked to undo Obamacare.
“The Trump Administration’s use of taxpayer-funded private planes keeps getting worse — all the while they continue trying to rip health care insurance away from millions and drive up costs for hard-working Granite Staters and Americans,” Hassan said.
Price’s practice of using charter jets follows Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s decision to use a government plane to fly to Fort Knox with his wife, Louise Linton, and view the solar eclipse. Mnuchin also reportedly requested a government plane for the couple’s European honeymoon.
Outside of a small group of Cabinet members, military and law-enforcement officials who travel on government planes for national security reasons, strict travel regulations require agencies to cite exceptional circumstances to justify someone in the federal government using noncommercial airline travel.
The most frequent justification used by executive branch officials is a lack of comparable options to accommodate the schedule for a trip.
Politico, however, identified several commercial flight options with comparable departure and arrival times to five chartered flights it said Price took last week.
Yoest said Price’s schedule was especially fluid last week. Before one chartered flight from D.C. to Philadelphia, he had to attend a hurricane briefing.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire appearance, she said, was to present $144 million in grant funding for services to combat opioid addition.
Discussions about the costs of the flights are “grossly underestimating the point that this is official business,” Yoest said.
She could not immediately provide details confirming the airport delay and canceled appearance that she said presaged the need for chartered flights for Price.
Travel policies for Health and Human Services, last updated during former president Obama’s second term, require the assistant secretary for administration and a senior agency travel official to approve noncommercial flight plans. The agency’s general counsel may also play a role.
Tesia D. Williams, a spokeswoman for the HHS inspector general, said the office was reviewing the request by Democratic members of Congress to investigate.
Jack Gillum, Abby Phillip and Carol Leonnig contributed to this report.