Watch­dog slams ex-HHS chief Price on costly travel

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Nation & World - By Ri­cardo Alonso-Zal­divar

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 re­port chas­tised the depart­ment for flout­ing fed­eral travel rules, which require of­fi­cials to book trips in the most cost­ef­fi­cient 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.

Price spokesman Ni­cholas Peters said in a state­ment, “there is no in­di­ca­tion in the (in­spec­tor gen­eral’s) re­port that the pa­per­work and reg­u­la­tory is­sues of depart­ment staff were any­thing other than good faith mis­takes.”

Peters would not com­ment on any ad­di­tional re­pay­ments by Price. He said in­ves­ti­ga­tors did not at­tempt to in­ter­view Price.

HHS agreed with most of the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s rec­om­men­da­tions for tight­en­ing up of­fi­cial travel and re­quested de­tails on the $341,000 that in­ves­ti­ga­tors said the govern­ment should re­coup. The in­spec­tor gen­eral said HHS should de­ter­mine how best to re­cover the money.

On Fri­day, HHS Deputy Sec­re­tary Eric Har­gan said in a sep­a­rate state­ment that the depart­ment has since in­sti­tuted new travel pro­ce­dures for all po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees.

But Har­gan also seemed to quib­ble, say­ing “the work of an au­dit is to re­view com­pli­ance with pro­ce­dures, not make le­gal con­clu­sions. As a mat­ter of law, none of the travel at is­sue was unau­tho­rized.”

The in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port raised ques­tions about how Price’s travel was au­tho­rized. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found that on five of 12 char­ter flights, le­gal ap­proval came only dur­ing or af­ter the trip.

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 fall 2017 af­ter his travel drew the ire of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, also up­set over the GOP fail­ure to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

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 ACA. 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.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

For­mer HHS chief Tom Price was forced out in fall 2017 af­ter his travel drew the ire of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

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