WASHINGTON — The government wasted at least $341,000 on travel by ousted Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, including booking charter flights without considering cheaper scheduled airlines, an agency watchdog said Friday.
The HHS inspector general’s long-awaited report chastised the department for flouting federal travel rules, which require officials to book trips in the most cost-efficient way for taxpayers.
The inspector general estimated that the government spent nearly $1.2 million on Price’s travel during his seven months in office. That included more than $700,000 in military flights on two foreign and two domestic trips, as well as more than $480,000 for various domestic trips by private chartered aircraft.
HHS “improperly used federal funds related to Sec. Price’s government travel,” the report said. Of 21 trips reviewed by the inspector general’s investigators, only one complied with all federal travel requirements. The report said none of the charter flights complied.
Price, who built a reputation as a budget hawk during earlier congressional service, has apologized and repaid the government nearly $60,000. The report said authorities should seek full recovery of the $341,000 deemed wasteful spending.
In a formal response to the report, HHS agreed with most of the inspector general’s recommendations for tightening up official travel and requested detail on the $341,000 that investigators said the government should recoup.
Extravagant spending on travel and office remodeling by top officials became a running story as the Trump administration took power in Washington on a presidential promise to “drain the swamp.”
Price was forced out in the fall of 2017 after his travel drew the ire of President Donald Trump, who was also upset over the GOP failure to repeal “Obamacare.”
A successful orthopedic surgeon before winning a congressional seat from the Atlanta suburbs, Price rose to become one of the top GOP experts on budget and health care issues. But as secretary of HHS, he never produced a health care plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Among other findings from the report:
- Investigators questioned Price’s assertion that his official schedule prevented him from flying commercial. In one case a White House event cited as justification was canceled, and Price’s office chose to continue with a charter flight at a cost of nearly $18,000.
- Even among charter flight options, Price’s office did not always book the lowest-cost trip. In one case the difference between quoted options amounted to nearly $46,000.
- For six trips, Price either started or ended his travel in his home state of Georgia, his most frequent charter travel destination outside of his official duty station in Washington, D.C.
- HHS paid more than $11,500 on commercial flights for a Price trip to China, Vietnam, and Japan. But Price ultimately flew on military transport at a cost of more than $430,000 and HHS lost track of what it spent for the commercial airline ticket until the inspector general’s investigators identified the expense.
— Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar