Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Thursday that he would reimburse the government for a fraction of the costs of his flights on charter planes in recent months, after coming under sharp criticism from members of both parties for the expensive practice.
“Today, I will write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” Price said in a statement, adding that he will no longer take private planes while serving as secretary. “No exceptions.”
The move came as House and Senate investigators are pressing Price, as well as other Cabinet members, to disclose the extent to which they have relied on noncommercial travel to travel across the United States and overseas. The recent revelations about these costly trips on military and private aircraft, at a time when the same officials have proposed dramatic cuts in the agencies they oversee, has put the administration on the defensive.
Price has come under the most intense scrutiny – President Donald Trump chastised him publicly Wednesday and suggested that his job was no longer secure – but lawmakers are also demanding investigations into travel by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
And a private plane chartered this summer by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana, cost taxpayers $12,375, according to a department spokesman. Zinke also used private flights during a trip to the Virgin Islands.
Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, according to congressional oversight records, costing taxpayers more than $58,000. Mnuchin is under investigation by the Treasury inspector general for his use of a government plane to visit Kentucky in August, as well as for flying on an Air Force C-37 to Washington after visiting Trump Tower in New York City.
Last week, Price’s office explained that he had turned to chartered jets when needed for the most efficient and effective travel in managing his department and maintaining contact with the public.
“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.
An HHS official said Thursday that Price would write a check for $51,887.31, which appears to cover the cost of his seat on chartered flights but not those of his staffers. Politico, which first reported on Price’s repeated use of chartered jets, has estimated the total expense of these trips exceeded $400,000 – and it reported early Thursday evening that his White House-approved flights on military planes to Africa, Europe and Asia had cost more than $500,000.
Yoest said in an interview that Price needed the military aircraft for secure communications during the overseas trips, which included roughly a half-dozen aides. His wife, Betty, also joined him, Yoest added, but Price covered the cost of her travel.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said using “military aircraft for Cabinet and other essential travelers is sometimes an appropriate and necessary use of resources” and such requests are closely reviewed. Officials have “limited support missions to travel that is central to the White House’s mission.”
Although Price said in his statement that his private-charter travel had been approved by legal and HHS officials, he added that he regretted “the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.”
“All of my political career I’ve fought for the taxpayers,” Price said. “It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials.”
Price said he will continue to cooperate fully with the HHS inspector general’s office, which is reviewing the flights. He also said he has initiated his own departmental review to determine if any changes or reforms are necessary.
On Wednesday, Trump was noncommittal about whether he would ask Price to resign. Responding to questions from reporters at the White House, Trump said he was “looking into” details of the secretary’s travels and that “personally, I’m not happy about it, and I let him know it.”
It is unclear whether Price’s gesture to defray part of the flights’ cost will be enough to save his job; the White House did not comment on that matter after his announcement.
At a briefing before Price issued his statement Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president and his aides were waiting to see what happened with the HHS inspector general’s probe and other investigations also underway. House Democrats, who requested the inspector general’s involvement, have said Price’s flights appeared to violate federal law intended to ensure that executive branch officials use the most economical travel available.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Trump on Thursday to impose a government-wide ban on the use of charter flights by administration officials and to detail “what steps the administration has taken to ensure that cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold and the spirit and the letter of all laws, regulations, and policies that apply.”
That followed a request Tuesday by the chairman and ranking Democrat of the House Oversight Committee that Price and more than 20 other agency heads list all use of private, charter aircraft and government-owned aircraft by political employees since the president’s inauguration.
The Treasury inspector general is reviewing all of Mnuchin’s flights and his travel requests, including one his office made for a government jet to fly him and his wife, Louise Linton, on a honeymoon trip to Europe this summer.
“We’re going through this process, we’re going to do a full review and we’ll see what happens,” Sanders told reporters.
“To be clear, the White House does not have a role on the front end of approving private charter flights at agencies,” she said. “That’s something we’re certainly looking into from this point forward and have asked a halt to be put, particularly at HHS, on any private charter flights.”
Even some of Price’s longtime allies have questioned his frequent use of private aircraft to journey to places where he owns property, such as St. Simons Island, Ga., and Nashville. One trip included a get-together with his son.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, said in an interview Wednesday that the juxtaposition of the secretary’s lavish trips and the budget cuts he is seeking posed a serious problem.
“Optics matter in politics,” Cole said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Juliet Eilperin