Trouble Mounts for Trump’s Health Secretary After Private-Jet Trips

  • Oversight committee demands travel records for Price, others
  • OIG is also investigating use of aircraft by HHS chief

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

Photographer: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is facing two probes into his use of private jets amid Republicans’ failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

On Wednesday, the the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a letter asking Price for details on his use of “government-owned aircraft for personal travel or private non-commercial aircraft for official travel.”

The letter, signed by the committee’s top Republican and Democrat, gives Price two weeks to provide the records. It also drags the former congressman into an inquiry by fellow Republicans, a relative rarity in Washington politics. HHS’s Office of Inspector General is also investigating the trips.

The oversight letter is part of a wider probe by the committee into the use of government planes or private aircraft by senior Trump administration officials. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was criticized after he and his wife took an Air Force jet on Aug. 21 to visit Fort Knox in Kentucky, where he also viewed the solar eclipse. Mnuchin and his staff also sought to use a government plane for his honeymoon in August, though he didn’t use the jet. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruit also flew on private planes several times, CBS News has reported.

Price is a particular focus after reports by Politico that he took at least two dozen private flights costing a total of hundreds of thousands of dollars despite the availability of cheaper commercial tickets.

He also paired official visits with longtime colleagues and family members, including his son, a musician in Nashville, Politico reported.

Price took over the HHS job in February, and part of his role has been to push for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans in Congress have so far failed to do so, and earlier this week dropped their latest effort.

White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke with Price on Wednesday and the Cabinet secretary didn’t offer his resignation, a White House official said.

Jet Travel

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HHS didn’t respond to a request for comment on the congressional investigation or whether Price would step down or pay back taxpayers. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday the travel wasn’t approved by the White House, but that there were likely “certain instances” when private charter travel would be appropriate. In the meantime, jet use has been suspended, Sanders said.

Last week, Price spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest defended the secretary’s travel. “The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible,” she said.

Representative Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the oversight committee, declined to comment on whether Price should stay in the job.

“It was not my job to give President Obama hiring or firing advice nor is it my job to give President Trump hiring or firing advice,” Gowdy said in an emailed statement. “Our job is to accumulate facts to elucidate the truth.”

Democrats Criticize

Democrats have pounced on the jet trips.

Representative Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Wednesday that if the allegations against Price are true, Price “should reimburse taxpayers for the funds he spent on private jets and apologize to the American people for his gross breach of the public trust.”

Pallone also said he was shocked by “the outright hypocrisy of these actions from a man who has spent his career railing against government waste.”

In 2009, Tom Price told CNBC that Congress should cut spending on government planes that supporters said were needed to carry military officials leading soldiers into combat. Price criticized an original effort to spend $550 million on eight passenger jets, and also objected to a reduced $220 million request for four jets.

“Now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets,” he said at the time. “This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in congress right now.”

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called Price’s use of chartered aircraft “stunning,” in an interview Tuesday with Bloomberg.

During her tenure, Sebelius said, health department officials were required to fly economy class for all travel less than 12 consecutive hours. Her lone charter flight, she said, was in a propeller plane her staff hired to visit Alaskan three villages inaccessible by road or commercial aircraft.

— With assistance by Justin Sink, and Steven T. Dennis

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