Treasury Watchdog Upholds Mnuchin’s $800,000 Use of Government Planes

Updated on
  • Treasury inspector general inquiry finds no violations
  • Treasury: Will follow OIG’s guidance on travel approvals

How Steven Mnuchin Got the Treasury Job

The U.S. Treasury’s watchdog found Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of government aircraft at a cost of about $800,000 was in line with the agency’s rules, but asked for “more rigor” backing up the need for such expenses in the future.

Mnuchin made nine requests for use of government aircraft since he was sworn in as Treasury chief in February, including three international trips. Eight were approved, while a request for a jet for his European honeymoon in August was withdrawn. One of the approved requests covers a trip to the Middle East scheduled for later this month.

“I see no violation of law in these requests and uses,” Rich Delmar, counsel for the Office of Inspector General for Treasury, wrote in an memo to Inspector General Eric Thorson released Thursday. The report advises “more rigor” in justifying government air use “especially regarding cost comparisons and needs for security and other special factors.”

Mnuchin’s travel office estimated that a trip to Miami in June -- that cost an estimated almost $44,000 on Air Force planes -- would have been $688 for a commercial round trip flight.

Trump’s cabinet has faced an uproar over use of private and military jets at taxpayer expense, with the controversy claiming one member already. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned last week after it was reported that he took more than two dozen private flights at taxpayer expense, as well as trips to Europe, Africa and Asia on military aircraft. The total cost was more than $1 million.

Ron Wyden, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the inspector general’s report suggested that the Trump administration had been giving rubber-stamp approval to requests for top officials’ use of military aircraft and private charters.

“It’s time for the Trump Administration to come clean with the American people and show us what other top officials in this administration have been using the White House as a luxury travel agency,” Wyden said in a statement emailed to reporters.

The review of Mnuchin’s travel was sparked by inquiries into the Treasury secretary’s use of a government plane to fly to Kentucky on Aug. 21 for an event to discuss tax-change plans and to tour Fort Knox. 

The Kentucky trip set off outrage after Mnuchin’s wife Louise Linton posted a photo of herself exiting the jet on social media with hashtags of the designer brands she was wearing, sparking criticism she was flaunting their wealth. That plane trip cost $26,900 and Mnuchin made the “applicable reimbursement” for his wife’s travel, the OIG’s report said.

Treasury should “present as strong and convincing a case as possible to justify this increasingly visible use of a government asset,” the report said.

The inspector general suggested strengthening the approval process, which Treasury intends to incorporate fully, a Treasury spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The report’s findings include:

  • All of Mnuchin’s government aircraft use was approved by the White House and followed the same procedures established under the Obama administration.
  • Mnuchin traveled on commercial flights during his European honeymoon from Aug. 3-12, including one short chartered flight for which he paid.
  • There is no indication that the date for Mnuchin’s trip to Kentucky was taken to coincide with the solar eclipse.
  • The most expensive trip was to Bari, Italy, for the Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers, which included media. That cost $314,000, with media paying their own travel.

Other cabinet members caught in the firestorm over taxpayer-funded air travel include Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, according to media reports.

After Price’s resignation, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney issued a memo ordering government agencies to seek approval from Chief of Staff John Kelly before most travel on government-owned or chartered planes.

Separately, Treasury’s inspector general has requested records related to a trip by Mnuchin’s chief of staff, Eli Miller, on a private jet with the founder of a hedge fund. OIG’s Delmar said early Thursday he had not received those documents from Treasury, but that the department has been cooperative in providing records so far.

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