Agency watchdog slams ex-HHS chief Price on costly travel
By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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.
In its 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. 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, 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.
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." The latest Cabinet casualty was Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who resigned this month amid ethics investigations.
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.
HHS 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.
HHS 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 back home to Indiana on weekends.