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United States

Ousted US health secretary Tom Price ‘wasted at least US$341,000 on travel’ including charter flights

The government spent nearly US$1.2 million on Price’s travel during his seven months in office, of which a minimum of US$341,000 was ‘wasted’, officials said

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 12:37am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 7:22am

The government wasted at least US$341,000 on travel by ousted US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, including booking charter flights without considering cheaper scheduled airlines, an agency watchdog said Friday.

The HHS inspector general’s long-awaited report chastised the department for flouting federal travel rules, which require officials to book trips in the most cost-efficient way for taxpayers.

The inspector general estimated that the government spent nearly US$1.2 million on Price’s travel during his seven months in office. That included more than US$700,000 in military flights on two foreign and two domestic trips, as well as more than US$480,000 for various domestic trips by private chartered aircraft.

HHS “improperly used federal funds related to Sec. Price’s government travel”, the report said.

Of 21 trips reviewed by the inspector general’s investigators, only one complied with all federal travel requirements. The report said none of the charter flights complied.

Price, who built a reputation as a budget hawk during earlier congressional service, has apologised and repaid the government nearly US$60,000. The report said authorities should seek full recovery of the US$341,000 deemed wasteful spending.

In its formal prepublication response to the report, HHS agreed with most of the inspector general’s recommendations for tightening up official travel and requested detail on the US$341,000 that investigators said the government should recoup. The inspector general said HHS should determine how best to recover the money.

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On Friday, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement that the department has since instituted new travel procedures for all political appointees, calling them “the most rigorous controls on travel in the organisation’s history”.

But Hargan also seemed to quibble, saying “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 unauthorised”.

The inspector general’s report raised questions about how Price’s travel was authorised. For example, investigators found that on five of 12 charter flights, legal approval came only during or after the trip.

Extravagant spending on travel and office remodelling by top officials became a running story as the Trump administration took power in Washington on a presidential promise to “drain the swamp.”

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The latest Cabinet casualty was Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who resigned this month amid ethics investigations.

Price was forced out in the fall of 2017 after his travel drew the ire of US President Donald Trump, who was also upset over the Republican Party failure to repeal “Obamacare”.

A successful orthopaedic surgeon before winning a congressional seat from the Atlanta suburbs, Price rose to become one of the top Republican Party 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.