Ex-of­fi­cial’s travel wasted $341,000, in­spec­tor re­ports

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - RI­CARDO ALONSO-ZAL­DIVAR THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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 Health and Hu­man Ser­vices 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. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices “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. In its for­mal re­sponse to the re­port, the depart­ment 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. The in­spec­tor gen­eral said the depart­ment should de­ter­mine how best to re­cover the money. On Fri­day, Deputy Sec­re­tary Eric Har­gan said in a sep­a­rate state­ment that the depart­ment has since in­sti­tuted new travel pro­ce­dures for all po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees, call­ing them “the most rig­or­ous con­trols on travel in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s his­tory.” Such travel is now re­viewed by the ethics of­fice. 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. For ex­am­ple, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that on five of 12 char­ter flights, le­gal ap­proval came only dur­ing or af­ter the trip. Price was forced out in the fall of 2017 af­ter his travel drew the ire of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. 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. The depart­ment 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. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices lost track of what it spent for the com­mer­cial air­line ticket un­til the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors iden­ti­fied the ex­pense. The gov­ern­ment ul­ti­mately got a re­fund for the com­mer­cial ticket. The depart­ment said cur­rent Sec­re­tary Alex Azar flies com­mer­cial on of­fi­cial busi­ness, with a few ex­cep­tions that have in­volved re­quests from the White House. Azar pays for his per­sonal travel home to In­di­ana on week­ends.

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