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HHS Tom Price Not The Only Cabinet Official With A Private Plane Problem


In Washington, a jet-setting cabinet secretary is getting his wings clipped. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price announced this afternoon that he will stop using chartered jets for government travel, and he'll reimburse taxpayers for some of the costs of the private flights he's already taken. An inspector general is reviewing Price's travel history - that after Politico reported he took more than two dozen flights on charter jets in recent months. The total cost was more than $400,000. Price says he'll repay nearly 52,000 of that.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, Price is not the only member of the president's cabinet whose high-flying habits are drawing scrutiny.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The health secretary is under the microscope and not in a good way. Price was trying to deliver a public health message this morning when he dropped by the National Press Club.


TOM PRICE: Just as a demonstration of the importance of flu vaccinations, I'm here to get my own flu vaccine today.


HORSLEY: But Price was in for a different kind of needling. He tried to duck out before the scheduled question and answer session, so reporters chased the secretary down the hall, asking about his high-priced habit of using chartered jets for government travel.


PRICE: We're going to work through this. And as - I think we've still got the confidence of the president, and we continue to work on important issues like flu vaccination.

HORSLEY: President Trump actually didn't sound all that confident yesterday when reporters asked him about the six-figure price tag for the secretary's travel.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm looking at that very closely. I am not happy with it. I will tell you. I am not happy with it.

HORSLEY: Pressed on whether he might fire Price, Trump said only, we'll see. It's not the first time the president has suggested such a thing. Speaking at a Boy Scout jamboree back in July, Trump joked that Price's job security might depend on the successful repeal of Obamacare.


TRUMP: Otherwise I'll say, Tom, you're fired. I'll get somebody.

HORSLEY: And the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act has now been compounded by press reports of Price's travel bills. His trips include a $25,000 flight to Philadelphia where commercial planes or even Amtrak could have taken the secretary at a fraction of that price.

RYAN ALEXANDER: This is a question of judgment and common sense.

HORSLEY: Ryan Alexander is president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. She says while charter jets might sometimes be justified to reach remote locations or make multiple stops, most government officials get by traveling coach.

ALEXANDER: In both Democratic and Republican administrations, cabinet secretaries, senior White House advisers, members of Congress take planes like the rest of us, take trains like the rest of us. It's just something you see if you travel in and out of Washington.

HORSLEY: Two other members of Trump's cabinet are also under scrutiny by inspectors general for their travel habits. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made numerous trips at taxpayer expense to his home state of Oklahoma while Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin used a military plane to visit Kentucky and asked about taking a military jet on his European honeymoon.

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: No doubt about it - there is a pattern.

HORSLEY: Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee which this week asked for records from all cabinet secretaries about their use of military and private planes.

CUMMINGS: They want to live lavishly, and that's fine. They can live any kind of way they want but not at the expense of hardworking Americans who pay their tax dollars hoping they will be spent in an effective and efficient manner. And this certainly does not meet that test.

HORSLEY: Cummings suggests the president's own frequent flights on Air Force One to vacation homes in Florida and New Jersey may have contributed to what he calls a culture of unaccountability. In a cabinet stacked with millionaires and billionaires, at least two other cabinet members have flown private jets at their own expense. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.