September 28, 2017

Will Trump fire HHS secretary over charter plane travel? 'We'll see,' Trump says

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    HHS Secretary Tom Price reportedly used private jets funded by the government for official business that also involved some personal travel.                                    

    Background

    HHS' Office of Inspector General said it is investigating Price's reported use of private planes for work-related travel in recent months. Price said he would not use private planes while the investigation is underway.

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    Several Democratic lawmakers had called for the investigation following a Politico article published last week that reported Price on five occasions took private jets for official business, which charter flight operators estimated would cost at least $60,000 combined. Politico has since identified at least 24 times between now and May when Price flew on private jets for official business at a cost of more than $400,000 to U.S. taxpayers.

    According to Axios' "Vitals," top Democratic leaders on the House Appropriations Committee also have requested documents on Price's travel by private jet. Separately, a group of House Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter to Price urging him to resign in light of the "gross misuse" of public funding.

    A Price spokesperson said the HHS secretary began using private jets after a commercial flight delay forced him to miss an official HHS event. According to Politico, that flight was delayed because of a storm in the Washington, D.C., area that also affected private charter flights.

    Politico reports Price used private jets for official business that intermingled with private travel

    Politico on Tuesday reported that in some instances when Price used private jets for government-related business, he paired the trips with meetings "with longtime colleagues and family members."

    For instance, Politico reported that Price in August used a government-funded private jet to travel to a resort in Georgia where he owns land one and half days before he attended a medical conference there to speak to local doctors. According to Politico, he and his wife had been attending the conference for years.

    In addition, HHS on June 6 chartered a private jet for Price to fly to Nashville, where Price's son lives and Price also owns property. Price during that trip toured a medicine dispensary and spoke at a local health summit that was organized by one of Price's friends, Politico reports. Further, Politico reports that an HHS official confirmed Price also had lunch with his son during the trip.

    According to Politico, an HHS official said the department paid for both trips, which were for official business. Both trips appear as though they did not require private jets, as commercial flights might have been available, Politico reports.

    Observers raise concerns; Trump says he is 'not happy' with Price

    Some observers have criticized Price for pairing personal visits with department business.

    Richard Painter, who served as the government's top ethics official under former President George W. Bush, said, although the trips were legal, they might have been unethical. "To use a charter flight on something that combines personal and government business, I think it's highly unprofessional and really inappropriate," he said, adding that the department is "playing games with the rules."

    Kathleen Sebelius, who served as HHS' secretary under former President Barack Obama, said during her tenure, HHS staff were required to fly economy class for any travel that spanned less than 12 consecutive hours. She said she had only used a private plane one time during her time as HHS secretary to travel to remote parts of Alaska that were not accessible by commercial plane or road.

    Commenting on Price's use of private jets for department travel, Sebelius said, "I have no idea who came up with this notion and where it came from, and the notion you could spend $400,000 in what, 5 months, is stunning"

    Trump told reporters Wednesday that he is "not happy" about the reports. When asked if he would fire Price, Trump said "we'll see."

    Despite Trump's comments, Price on Thursday said he believes he still has the president's support, Politico reports (Diamond/Pradhan, Politico, 9/26; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 9/27; Sink, Bloomberg, 9/26; Neuman, "The Two-Way," NPR, 9/27; Minemyer, FierceHealthcare, 9/27; Marcos, The Hill, 9/27; Diamond, Politico, 9/28).

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