IG: Former HHS secretary’s travel wasted $341,000

IG: Former HHS secretary’s travel wasted $341,000
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Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price

Nearly all of Tom Price’s travel when he was secretary of Health and Human Services violated federal requirements, wasting at least $341,000, according to an inspector general report released Friday.

“We determined this cost difference was extravagant, careless, or needless and thus considered it waste,” the report reads.

The report put the total price tag of his 21 trips — including charter and military aircraft — at $1.2 million.

“Of the 21 trips, we determined that for one trip all applicable Federal requirements had been followed,” the report said. “The remaining 20 trips did not comply with Federal requirements, including all 12 chartered aircraft trips.”

The report reveals that when Price flew on charter aircraft, his aides did not compare the cost of a charter to the cost of flying commercial. Required authorization paperwork was completed on time for only one trip, and for several, a legal review of the trip was completed either during the trip or after it concluded, the report said. In addition, several charter trips either began or ended in his home state of Georgia.

Price, a doctor and former congressman, resigned last fall after the scandal, first revealed by Politico, engulfed his short tenure at the department.

At the time, the department said Price’s charter jet travel had been approved by HHS legal and ethics officials.

“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,” Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement Friday morning.

A spokesman for Price said the inspector general’s office did not ask to interview him, and maintained he did nothing wrong.

“There is no indication in the IG report that the paperwork and regulatory issues of Department staff were anything other than good faith mistakes,” said Nicholas Peters, the spokesman.

He ultimately repaid the government nearly $52,000 for his travel.

A department official told the inspector general in a letter that “it is unclear as a matter of law whether recoupment” of a larger amount is required.

Heather Flick, an acting assistant secretary, wrote, “Significant changes have occurred in the travel policies of HHS and throughout the administration, so that going forward, spending on chartered air travel similar to those examined here are unlikely to recur.”

Department comments cited in the report noted that in some cases, the charter aircraft were arranged by officials “unfamiliar” with federal requirements and processes, and “certain involved personnel are no longer employed by HHS.”

According to the inspector general, one of the charter flights alone wasted nearly $107,000, and less expensive charter options were available.

That charter flight, to Seattle in August 2017, cost the government $121,500. Seats on commercial aircraft would have cost about $2,500. In addition, Price’s office did not select the lower of two bids from that same company, which was about $46,000 less, the report said.

The report also noted two other occasions in which the office did not select the lowest quotes, saying it “did not demonstrate its rationale for its selections.”

Among the changes to HHS procedures that the department has instituted is a requirement that many political appointees complete a “Travel Optics Self-Assessment Checklist” before finalizing reservations, according to an internal memo from May included in the report. The optics checklist is reviewed by the department’s ethics office and potentially by HHS’s chief of staff.