Ousted HHS chief should repay $341,000 for lavish travel

Ousted HHS chief should repay $341,000 for lavish travel

Tom Price was forced out in the fall of 2017 after his travel drew the ire of President Trump, who was also upset over the GOP failure to repeal Obamacare.

WASHINGTON — Former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price should repay the federal government more than $341,000 for improperly using charter and military aircraft for travel for himself and his wife, a new report from the agency’s independent Office of the Inspector General has concluded.

“The Office of the Secretary improperly used federal funds related to former Secretary Price’s government travel,” said the report, released Friday. Auditors found that 20 of the 21 trips that Price took during his brief tenure as secretary in 2017 did not meet federal requirements.

Price, a conservative Georgia congressman and friend of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., whom President Donald Trump tapped to lead the health agency, was forced to resign last September after reports by Politico outlined his extensive use of charter and military aircraft for routine travel domestically and around the world.

Many of the flights were between major U.S. cities served by much cheaper commercial airlines.

After the scandal broke, Price said he would repay a portion of the costs.

But the Office of Inspector General recommended that the health agency recoup an additional $341,616 from Price, who is now serving on the advisory board of Atlanta-based Jackson Healthcare.

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.

In a formal response, 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.

An HHS spokesperson said the agency would ask the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel to review whether there is a legal basis to recoup the money.

Nicholas Peters, a spokesman for Price, suggested in a statement that the costly travel was the result of “good faith mistakes” by HHS staff.

Peters would not say if the former secretary will repay the taxpayer money that the inspector general says should be recouped.

Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, redoubled their criticism of the former health secretary.

“This report confirms Tom Price’s role as the poster child for the rampant waste of taxpayer dollars that has occurred on Trump’s watch, all while he was pursuing dangerous policies that increase families’ premiums and weaken their health care,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

Wyden was among many Democrats who opposed Price’s nomination, citing among other things revelations that while a congressman, Price had traded extensively in the stocks of health care companies that could have been affected by his votes and actions.

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 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.