Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Tom Price flew a little too high, a little too often

I don't know if Tom Price will be fired as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

I do know that he deserves to be.

Back in his days as a Georgia congressman, Price had lectured incessantly and sanctimoniously about the evils of government spending in general, and more specifically about the use of private jets by government officials who thought they were too good to fly commercial. That sort of hectoring and public penny-pinching became part of Price's persona, helping in his rise to chair of the powerful House Budget Committee, where he repeatedly proposed massive cuts to social programs aiding the poor, the elderly and the ill.

Yet when Price was named to a Cabinet position and the opportunity arose to pamper himself at taxpayer's expense, his sense of personal entitlement was apparently too strong to resist.

Initially, when it was reported by Politico that Price had taken five trips on chartered executive planes, his office tried to explain the flights as a temporary measure made necessary by a hectic schedule as Price tried to respond to repeated hurricanes. That sounded plausible, except for the fact that the trips in question were to Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, none of which had been hit by hurricanes.

In addition, cheap commercial flights were readily available to all of those locations, but were apparently deemed beneath the secretary's dignity. (Previous holders of his job have flown almost exclusively commercial, and government policy calls for use of commercial flights whenever possible.)

A little deeper digging uncovered the fact that Price had taken an additional 17 such chartered flights, all before the hurricanes even developed, including a trip on a Learjet-60 from San Diego to Aspen, Colo.. At that point, the spin out of Price's office took on the intensity of a Category Five hurricane.

"This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people," his spokesperson explained.

You almost have to admire the chutzpah and imagination needed to defend private luxury jets as a way of staying in touch with "real Americans." If you want to rub elbows, knees and shoulders with "real Americans," then you should fly commercial, and by commercial I mean coach.

The latest round of reporting is the most damaging yet. The number of chartered flights since February is now up to 27; the estimated total cost has risen to more than $400,000. According to Politico, the list includes at least two expensive chartered flights to locations where Price's "work responsibilities" were at best minimal, but where -- just by accident, of course -- he either owned property or had family to visit.

In one trip, Price took a Learjet from Washington to Nashville at a cost of almost $18,000, where he toured a medical dispensary for an hour and spoke briefly to a health-care meeting. The rest of his 5.5 hours on the ground in Nashville was spent visiting and having lunch with his son, who lives there.

In another, Price and his wife took a taxpayer-funded chartered flight to Brunswick, near St. Simons, where they own property. They spent the next two days -- a weekend -- on the island, and during those two days Price's official duties consisted of a one-hour speech to the Medical Association of Georgia.

And of course, this isn't the first time that Price has acted out of a seeming sense of entitlement. As a powerful congressman with a background as a physician, he exercised significant influence over the nation's health-care policy, which in turn led to his appointment as HHS secretary. As the Wall Street Journal reported, during that time Price also invested more than $300,000 in health-care and pharmaceutical companies whose stock price could have been affected by his actions.

Price has claimed those investments were perfectly legal, but a public servant with a more highly developed sense of ethics would have declined to invest in areas where he had such influence, and where concerns of conflicts of interest were so obvious.

Price is not such a person. I've covered him for more than 20 years now, since his days back in the Georgia Legislature, and none of this surprises me. He was known back then on both sides of the aisle as someone who was smart, highly ambitious and very much out for himself, and that hasn't changed.

Earlier today, however, President Trump was asked what he thought about his gallivanting, high-flying HHS secretary.

"I will tell you, personally, I'm not happy about it," Trump told reporters. "I'm going to look at it. I'm not happy about it, and I will let him know it."

Asked if he intends to fire Price, Trump said "We'll see."


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.