July 17, 2018

HHS' OIG: Former HHS secretary's travel wasted $341K, in violation of federal policies

Daily Briefing

    Former HHS Secretary Tom Price's official travel did not always comply with federal regulations, and HHS should seek to recuperate at least $341,000 from expenses related to that travel, according to a report released Friday by HHS' Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

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    Background

    Price resigned last year in the wake of federal investigations and growing criticism over his use of private planes for official business.

    Politico first broke news of Price's use of private planes for work-related travel, which later spurred an investigation by HHS' OIG. Politico last year identified at least 26 instances in which Price, a physician and former Republican House representative from Georgia, flew on private jets for official business, costing taxpayers an estimated $400,000. Politico also reported that Price traveled via military aircraft for multi-national trips to Africa, Europe, and Asia at a cost of more than $500,000.

    Price last year said he would reimburse the federal government for "[his] seat" on private jets, totaling more than $51,000.

    Report details

    For the report, HHS' OIG evaluated whether Price's federal travel during his time as HHS secretary complied with applicable federal regulations and HHS policies and procedures. HHS' OIG examined 21 trips in which Price used chartered aircraft, commercial aircraft, MilAir, and the presidential fleet, which cost a total of about $1.2 million. HHS' OIG reviewed:

    • Flight manifests;
    • Price's repayment of $59,390;
    • Processes to authorize the use of and procurement of chartered aircraft services; and
    • Travel authorizations, vouchers, and receipts.

    Findings

    Overall, HHS' OIG found that one of the 21 trips followed all applicable federal regulations and HHS policies and procedures, but 20 of the trips did not comply with federal requirements.

    In particular, HHS' OIG found noncompliance related to the:

    • Review of authorizations and vouchers, which it partly attributed to HHS employees failing to complete required travel card training;
    • Travel records for Price and other HHS travelers; and
    • Use of a chartered aircraft, including failure to adhere to contract requirements, complete a cost comparison with commercial airline service, and properly authorize use of chartered aircraft.

    HHS' OIG in the report stated that HHS officials "did not adequately evaluate each authorization on a trip-by-trip basis" to determine if it was appropriate for Price to travel using a chartered aircraft. For instance, OIG in the report said a trip to Aspen, Salt Lake City, and San Diego in June 2017 included just 3.4 hours of official HHS engagements, but cost the federal government $50,420 "when other options, including commercial travel, would have accommodated [Price's] schedule."

    HHS' OIG wrote that "the use of chartered aircraft and identified noncompliance issues resulted in waste of federal funds totaling at least $341,000." HHS' OIG recommended that HHS "review the lack of compliance with federal requirements and … determine appropriate administrative actions to recoup" at least $341,000 related to:

    • The authorization and use of chartered aircraft;
    • Travel that started or ended in locations other than the official duty station; and
    • Other excess travel costs.

    HHS' OIG also recommended that HHS "make procedural recommendations to improve processes and internal controls related to the use of chartered aircraft and to ensure compliance with applicable federal regulations and HHS policies and procedures."

    HHS' response

    HHS concurred with most of its OIG's recommendations. HHS said it is taking actions to ensure federal regulations and HHS policies and procedures are followed, including releasing new policies and instituting mandatory travel policy training for all non-career personnel. An HHS spokesperson said, "All HHS political appointees have undergone further training regarding government travel rules and procedures and are required to file a checklist before each trip with their supervisor or the Office of the General Counsel."

    HHS said it is reviewing whether to seek the recommended $341,000 in repayments related to the travel expenses. An HHS spokesperson said the department will seek guidance from the Department of Justice to determine "whether there is legal basis for recoupment."

    Tesia Williams, a spokesperson for HHS' OIG, said it remains unclear who HHS would ask to repay the $341,000. Williams said, "It is a great question. Who would they ask for the money? Would that be Price? … Or is it the department, they approved it? That would be something for [HHS] counsel to offer."

    Reaction

    Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), who was among a group of Democratic lawmakers who requested the investigation by HHS' OIG, said the report "confirms … Price's role as the poster child for the rampant waste of taxpayer dollar under [President] Trump's watch."

    However, Nicholas Peters, Price's spokesperson, said, "Media coverage inaccurately states the report takes issue with … Price's actions," when, "[i]n fact, the report addresses overall functions of [HHS] staff charged with administering travel" (Pradhan/Diamond, Politico, 7/13; Armour/Radnofsky, Wall Street Journal, 6/13; Berman/Goldstein, Washington Post, 7/13; Sullivan, The Hill, 7/13; HHS' OIG report, 7/13). 

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