A spokeswoman for HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson told The Washington Post on Friday that the agency will request records of Price’s travel and review the justification made by Price and his staff for the trips, which reportedly cost taxpayers a combined $300,000.
House Democrats wrote to Levinson, an appointee of President George W. Bush, on Wednesday requesting the investigation. They said the flights appeared to violate federal law designed to make sure executive branch officials use the most economical travel available.
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Democrats cited a Politico report this week that Price had taken five private charter flights last week along routes and at times when commercial flights were available for a fraction of the cost.
In a follow-up story citing internal agency documents and officials with knowledge of Price’s travel practices, Politico reported that the Georgia Republican had taken at least 24 such flights since May.
“OIG is conducting a review of Secretary Price’s Federal travel using chartered aircraft. The review focuses on whether the travel complied with Federal Travel Regulations, but may encompass other issues related to the travel,” said Tesia D. Williams, a spokeswoman for Levinson. “We take this matter very seriously, and when questions arose about potentially inappropriate travel, we immediately began assessing the issue. I can confirm that work is underway and will be completed as soon as possible.”
Price’s office this week sought to justify his use of chartered jets, saying that the secretary’s office evaluates the most effective way for him to travel and finds that it is sometimes necessary to charter planes to allow Price to both manage one of the largest executive branch agencies and stay grounded with voters.
“This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people,” said Charmaine Yoest, his assistant secretary for public affairs.
Yoest said that early in his tenure in Trump’s Cabinet, Price was delayed at an airport and forced to cancel a public event.
“Wasting four hours in an airport and having the secretary cancel his event is not a good use of taxpayer money.”
Democrats have blasted Price’s use of private jets – some with plush leather chairs, kitchens and other amenities – as hypocritical as he has sought deep budget cuts at the National Institutes of Health and a repeal of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
In one flight last week, Price traveled to New Hampsire, his staff acknowledged. In a statement Thursday night, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., criticized him for doing so.
“The Trump Administration’s use of taxpayer-funded private planes keeps getting worse – all the while they continue trying to rip health care insurance away from millions and drive up costs for hard-working Granite Staters and Americans,” Hassan said.
On Friday, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel called on House Republicans to hold a hearing into Price’s travel and asked Price for details on the number of non-commercial flights that he or other agency officials took, how much they cost and any documents justifying the private-jet travel.
“If these recent reports are accurate, this would be a stunning and hypocritical breach of trust, given that the Trump Administration at the same time is trying to take away healthcare from millions of Americans and is proposing to slash funding at HHS – negatively affecting critical programs to provide early-childhood education, fund Medicare for seniors, and conduct medical research and development,” wrote Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in his letter to HHS.
“The amount of taxpayer funds you reportedly spent on just one single flight earlier this month is more than some of my constituents make in an entire year,” Cummings continued.
Outside of a small group of Cabinet members, military and law enforcement officials who travel on government planes for national security reasons, strict travel regulations require agencies to cite exceptional circumstances to justify someone in the federal government using noncommercial airline travel.
The most frequent justification used by executive branch officials is a lack of comparable options to accommodate the schedule for a trip.
Politico, however, identified several commercial flight options with comparable departure and arrival times to five chartered flights it said Price took last week.
Yoest said Price’s schedule was especially fluid last week. Before one chartered flight from D.C. to Philadelphia, he had to attend a hurricane briefing.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire appearance, she said, was to present $144 million in grant funding for services to combat opiod addition.
Discussions about the costs of the flights are “grossly underestimating the point that this is official business,” Yoest said.
She could not immediately provide details confirming the airport delay and canceled appearance that she said led to the conclusion that Price needed to use chartered flights.
Travel policies for Health and Human Services, last updated during Obama’s second term, require the assistant secretary for administration and a senior agency travel official to approve noncommercial flight plans.