- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2018

The Health and Human Services Department flouted federal regulations when it let former secretary Tom Price use chartered planes instead of looking for cheaper options, squandering $341,000 in federal funds, an agency watchdog reported Friday.

The HHS inspector general reviewed 21 trips taken by Mr. Price, who was forced out in September after several months on the job. The agency followed all the rules in only one instance, it said.

Most notably, HHS failed to compare the cost of a dozen chartered plane trips to commercial alternatives, and it did not properly authorize the use of exclusive travel.

Mr. Price, a former congressman, flew around the country during his short tenure to trump efforts to reverse the opioid epidemic and highlight issues like obesity and mental health.

Besides chartered planes, he used the military and presidential fleets or commercial airlines for nine trips.

Yet a series of Politico reports about his chartered travel raised eyebrows, ultimately leading to the secretary resignation and decision to reimburse taxpayers nearly $60,000 for the price of his seat and, in some cases, a seat his wife used.

The inspector general said it reviewed contracts with two vendors totaling about $480,000 for Mr. Price’s 12 trips on chartered planes.

In each case, HHS couldn’t prove that it compared chartered trips to commercial flights, even though it is supposed to find the options most advantageous to the government and taxpayers.

The IG report highlighted examples of wasted funds:

• In June, HHS reserved Mr. Price a chartered flight to Nashville for business events because the secretary was poised to head to the White House for a meeting right before the trip.

The agency didn’t bother to cancel the $17,760 flight and find a cheaper option when the White House meeting was called off two days prior to the trip.

Later in June, Mr. Price flew to California and then to Aspen, Colorado, and to Salt Lake City, Utah, chalking up $50,000 in chartered flight costs for 3½ hours of official engagements.

The inspector general said in both instances, it was impossible to retroactively check the availability of commercial airline seats for those days, though flights that would have accommodated his schedule did exist.

• In September, Mr. Price flew to Philadelphia at the cost of about $15,000 for an opioids roundtable and tour of an addiction center in the morning, before returning to the capital for a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence.

The IG reports says HHS could have arranged his meetings so that commercial rail or car travel was feasible, while still making his appointment with Mr. Pence.

The report also says HHS didn’t always select the lowest-quoted price on charter flights, nor were the trade-offs of selecting the higher price justified.

One such flight, a one-way trip from Seattle to D.C. cost $121,500 and accounted for about a quarter of the costs of Mr. Price’s chartered flights overall.

The report says there was another chartered flight quoted at $75,000, plus commercial flights around the same time on Aug. 25 that would have gotten the secretary back to D.C. in time to prepare for a conference call on a looming hurricane in Texas.

A big part of the problem, the IG report said, is that Mr. Price’s scheduling team would select events before figuring out how he’d get there.

“Without making the mode of transportation a primary consideration during the scheduling process, the team limited the available transportation options that were most advantageous to the government and that would enable former Secretary Price to arrive at scheduled events on time,” the report said.

Investigators said in some cases, chartered flights were authorized during or after the trip, instead of ahead of time, and three trips either started or ended in his home state of Georgia, rather than an official post, resulting in unnecessary costs.

The IG report says the agency should find a way to recoup $333,000 related to the authorization and use of chartered aircraft, nearly $5,000 related to travel that started or ended in places other than Mr. Price’s duty station and nearly $3,000 in other excess travel costs.

Nicholas Peters, a spokesman for Mr. Price, said the inspector general did not attempt to interview the former secretary, and there is “no indication in the IG report that the paperwork and regulatory issues of department staff were anything other than good faith mistakes.”

He noted the report does not take issue with Mr. Price’s own actions, but instead deals with the functions of those who oversee travel at HHS.

At the same time, he said that Mr. Price “salutes the professional career staff of the department for their tireless dedication to its critical mission on behalf of the American people.”

In a statement, Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said the agency has tightened up its procedures but insisted that Mr. Price’s trips were not illegal.

“The department understands the auditor’s concern that the processes and record keeping regarding travel could have been more comprehensive, and, since the period examined by the audit, HHS has instituted new travel review procedures applicable to all political appointees,” he said. “It must be noted, though, that 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.”

But Senate Democrats who’d opposed Mr. Price last year said the findings amount to a “told you so” moment, after his confirmation was marked by questions about his credentials and questionable stock trades.

“This unseemly saga is a reminder of why public officials need to be carefully scrutinized before the Senate places them in positions of enormous responsibility: Republicans rammed through Price’s nomination in the face of numerous reports of ethical misconduct, and the country was worse off because of it,” Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said.

Others said Mr. Price should pay back “every penny” of the costs, or that the findings fit a broader pattern within a Trump administration that had promised to “drain the swamp.”

Scott Pruitt resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month, amid a torrent of reports alleging ethical lapses and questionable spending.

“Today’s independent inspector general report sheds new light on Trump administration officials’ use of taxpayer funds as their own personal slush funds,” Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, said. “Although Secretary Price resigned because of these actions, the Trump administration continues to be plagued by mismanagement and waste of taxpayer dollars.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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