The Secretary of Health and Human Services is the latest Trump administration official to come under fire for seeming financial impropriety, after internal documents revealed tens of thousands of dollars spent on chartered airfare. According to POLITICO, HHS head Tom Price used private planes for domestic business affairs, costing taxpayers a small fortune and highlighting White House officials' taste for the finer things in life.
According to internal department records obtained by POLITICO, Price flew from Washington to Maine, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania between Sept. 13 and 15, all on private jets. While HHS did not reveal the full price tag for the trip, several charter airline operators suggested that the total cost of the itinerary would have been somewhere around $60,000. POLITICO also pointed out that President Obama's HHS secretaries, Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, flew commercial while traveling domestically.
"As part of the HHS mission to enhance and protect the health and well-being of the American people, Secretary Price travels on occasion outside Washington to meet face to face with the American people to hear their thoughts and concerns firsthand," an HHS spokesperson said during a press briefing regarding the spending. "When commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements, charter aircraft can be used for official travel."
HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Charmaine Yoest reached out to Bustle with a statement defending Price's use of private travel.
Within an incredibly demanding schedule full of 13-plus hour days, every effort is being made to maximize Secretary Price's ability to travel outside Washington to meet with the American people and carry out HHS's missions. Secretary Price is currently managing public health and human services recovery and preparation efforts for 3 major hurricanes.
Secretary Price leads a $1.2 trillion agency — the largest agency in government. The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible. The President has made it clear his Administration will move power out of Washington and return it to the American people. Secretary Price will continue meeting with the American people outside of the Beltway to hear their concerns and ensure HHS makes decisions that best provide for their needs.
Many people have been quick to point out that Price railed against excessive government spending in the past — he even specifically ranted against Congress' use of private planes in 2009. "This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now," Price said at the time, advocating against the use of private planes by Congressional representatives. (Another foreshadowing gem from that interview: "Hopefully, the Speaker will allow folks the opportunity to actually read a bill before we have to vote on it.")
Of course, this type of spending has been noted in other areas of the administration too. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin faced similar allegations for reportedly requesting the use of a government plane for his honeymoon.
But both Mnuchin and Price may just be following the tacit example of the president — "You don't request taxpayer funding for your honeymoon in a vacuum. You do it when corruption has become a feature of government culture," former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin commented last week.
Trump himself has been spending government money like crazy since taking office. According to the Center for American Progress, he's spent over $32 million so far on vacations to Mar-a-Lago and his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. It's unknown how exactly Trump's spending and frequent vacations have contributed to the culture at the White House, but it doesn't seem coincidental that both the boss and his employees have a newfound attitude toward spending government money now that they're the ones who get to do it.
While there may be a perfectly legitimate reason that Price couldn't fly commercial, this story highlights the absolute need for accountability in the federal government today. Most Americans can now go online and find out almost anything at any time of day, and the government needs to adjust to that up-to-the-minute access that its citizens have come to expect.
There is no reason why this kind of spending should be allowed without thoroughly and easily available documentation to support its necessity — the Trump administration will only continue to battle mistrust and confrontation until those changes are implemented.