Price’s Cabinet post in doubt after flights aboard taxpayer-funded jets

Health Secretary Tom Price’s future appeared to be in doubt Wednesday after President Donald Trump publicly questioned the former Georgia congressman’s use of private jets on the public’s dime. And while a handful of liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill quickly called for Price’s resignation, other onetime colleagues kept quiet or urged patience as a government watchdog probes the Cabinet member’s official trips.

The spotlight on Price grew exponentially brighter when Trump told reporters assembled Wednesday afternoon on the White House’s South Lawn that he was “not happy” with Price. The president seemingly left the door open to the possibility that he could fire his health chief.

“I am going to see,” Trump said in response to a question about whether he has confidence in Price. “I’m looking at that very closely. I am not happy with it.”

“We’ll see,” he added when a reporter asked about whether he would fire Price.

The president’s comments came days after the news outlet Politico reported that Price had taken private jets on more than two dozen occasions since May, including to places where he owned property or had family, costing taxpayers roughly $300,000. More affordable commercial flights and trains were available at similar times on many of those trips, the site said.

Private and charter flights are not necessarily illegal under federal law. Government officials, however, are almost always required to use the most efficient and cost-effective forms of travel available. Many of Price’s predecessors flew commercial while traveling within the continental U.S.

“If somebody is using a charter aircraft where it’s not at all necessary, that’s your classic case of waste, fraud and abuse because it is spending taxpayer money on something that was not at all necessary and was done for the convenience of the government official,” said Larry Noble, the general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based government watchdog. “You wonder what would make (Price) think this is the appropriate thing to do.”

One of the trips highlighted by Politico was in August to St. Simons Island, where Price owns land and was scheduled to speak at a Medical Association of Georgia retreat. The story questioned why Price didn’t fly commercial and showed up nearly two days ahead of his speech. Price also flew on a private jet to Philadelphia, a city just a few hours from Washington by car and where there are frequent trains, buses and commercial flights.

The inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that it was investigating Price’s travel. The former orthopedic surgeon has since said he will stop taking taxpayer-funded trips on chartered planes while the inquiry is ongoing.

“We’ve heard the criticism. We’ve heard the concerns,” Price said this past weekend on Fox News. “And we take that very seriously — and have taken it to heart.”

Price’s spokeswoman at HHS, Caitlin Oakley, said in a statement late Wednesday that Price “has initiated an internal department review of procedures and processes that we go through for official travel to determine whether there are any changes or reforms that are necessary.”

Shortly after Trump’s comments on Wednesday, a handful of House Democrats urged Price to resign.

“At a minimum, the American people expect cabinet secretaries to lead with integrity, accept accountability and use public resources responsibly. In light of your breach of the public trust, we write to urge you to do the right thing and immediately tender your resignation,” U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Ted Lieu of California, Brenda Lawrence of Michigan and Pramila Jayapal of Washington wrote in a letter to Price.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Last week, when stories first emerged about travel by Price on charter flights, a department spokeswoman defended Price’s decision to take private jets instead of commercial flights.

“The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible,” the statement read.

Local officials stay away

Price’s onetime colleagues from Georgia’s congressional delegation have largely kept their distance.

“I really don’t know the details, so I’ll reserve judgment,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville.

“I don’t really have a comment on that,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said Wednesday. “I think that’s something that they’re investigating now, and we’ll see what happens.”

Others expressed disbelief.

“Tommy is the most thrift-conscious person I know,” said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who served with Price in the Georgia Legislature and U.S. Congress before retiring last year. “He and (his wife, Betty Price) live a very humble life, so when I heard about it I was just really surprised.”

“The optics of it are not good — I think he’ll admit it,” Westmoreland said of his former colleague. “But let’s find out why it happened.”

Most of Georgia’s Democrats kept quiet about their former colleague, too. Only Atlanta U.S. Rep. John Lewis said Price should reimburse taxpayers for the cost of his “personal trips” — a call echoed by the head of the Georgia chapter of the ethics group Common Cause — but he stopped short of calling for the secretary’s resignation.

The Roswell resident represented Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the House of Representatives for 12 years before stepping down in February to become the 23rd secretary of health and human services after a bruising confirmation battle. He was considering a run for governor in 2018 before Trump tapped him for the Cabinet role.

Price is not the only Cabinet official under review for his recent public travel. Internal watchdogs at the Treasury Department are investigating two trips Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin took recently, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt similarly drew headlines after using an Air Force jet and frequently taking trips back to his home state of Oklahoma.

Earlier Wednesday, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Oversight Committee said they were reviewing press reports about trips taken by Price and other top Trump administration officials, the clearest signal yet that Congress is raising red flags about private charter travel.

This isn’t the first time Price’s ethics have been called into question. Democrats dug in on Price’s trading in health stocks during his Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year, raising questions about insider trading as it related to the timing of health legislation he introduced on Capitol Hill.

Jamie Dupree is a reporter with Cox Media Group in Washington.

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