The US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, has been accused of mixing personal undertakings with official trips on chartered private jets funded from the government purse.
Price has been placed under investigation by the HHS inspector general.
Politico reports that, Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, a resort in Georgia where he and his wife own land, just barely 36hrs before he addressed a group of local doctors at a medical conference.
According to the report, the St. Simons Island trip was one of two taxpayer-funded flights on private jets in which Price traveled to places where he owns property, and mixing it with official visits and meetings with longtime colleagues and family members.
One of the trips as confirmed by an HHS official was on June 6, when the HHS chartered a jet to fly Price to Nashville, Tennessee, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides, coupled with a tour of a medicine dispensary and equally spoke at a local health summit organized by a longtime friend. He also had lunch with his son.
The HHS official said both the Georgia and Tennessee trips were for official government business and were paid for by the department.
Richard Painter, a former top official President George W. Bush administration, said Price’s trips may have been legal but were ethically dubious.
Painter said: “To use a charter flight on something that combines personal and government business, I think it’s highly unprofessional and really inappropriate,” Painter said — especially if personal business represented a disproportionate part of the trip.
HHS has overtime defended Price’s action, saying he has not violated Federal Travel Regulations, which state that officials can charter a plane only if “no scheduled commercial airline service is reasonably available (i.e., able to meet your departure and/or arrival requirements within a 24-hour period, unless you demonstrate that extraordinary circumstances require a shorter period) to fulfill your agency’s travel requirement.”
According to POLITICO review, the trip to Tennessee among 26 other private jet trips since May appears to have occurred despite the availability of multiple commercial flight options. Also, the trip to Georgia, while less direct, also could have been accomplished with a routine connecting flight through Atlanta’s international airport.
On Aug. 4, the Secretary flew a Dassault Falcon 2000 twin jet – the same plane that had shuttled him between five states in four days from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had given a speech to a flu vaccine manufacturer, to Brunswick Golden Isles Airport, which is about a half-hour drive from St. Simons Island.
The said plane arrived in Brunswick at 4:02 p.m. before a two-day Medical Association of Georgia retreat and roughly 40 hours before Price’s scheduled address, airport records revealed. At about the same time, there were connecting commercial flights from Raleigh to Brunswick via Atlanta which Price could have boarded to get to St. Simons Island that evening.
In addition, Painter questioned why Price needed to travel on Friday afternoon to St. Simons Island when his speech wasn’t until Sunday. “One night is appropriate for a speech in Georgia, not two nights”, he said.
The Nashville trip is surely indefensible as there were many commercial flights available at the same time Price flew. According to federal contract, on June 6, Price took a Learjet 55 — a $17,760 round-trip flight that departed from Washington Dulles International Airport at 9:12 a.m. ET and touched down in Nashville at 9:44 a.m. CT.
Two commercial flights followed similar routes and at same time window. An American Airlines plane departed Reagan National Airport at 9:05 a.m. ET and landed in Nashville at 9:39 a.m. CT. Also, Southwest Airlines flight left Baltimore-Washington International at 9:18 a.m. ET and arrived in Nashville at 9:54 a.m. CT.
U.S. General Services Administration in response to Price’s trips said the Commercial airline tickets with government discounts would have cost between $102 and $333 per person round-trip between the two cities.
Painter further argued that Price’s trip to Nashville raised multiple ethical concerns as Price spent just five-and-a-half hours in the city, with only two official visits on his calendar — an hourlong tour of the dispensary and a 20-minute speech that preceeded his lunch with his son, despite spending nearly $18,000 on a Learjet,
“If [Price] flew out there commercial and he had a lunch with his son, no one would bat an eyelid. But he’s combining all these different ways of stretching it,” Painter said.
“They’re playing games with the rules,” Painter added.