Health Secretary Price’s use of private jets under review

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Health Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets for government travel was under investigation on Friday after an internal watchdog agreed to review the issue following calls by Democrats for a probe.

Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Daniel Levinson’s office said it would request Price’s travel records and seek to review their justification.

Price has taken at least two dozen such charter flights since May at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $300,000, according to Politico, which first reported the travel.

HHS’s Office of the Inspector General “is conducting a review of Secretary Price’s federal travel using chartered aircraft. The review focuses on whether the travel complied with Federal Travel Regulations, but may encompass other issues related to the travel,” said Levinson’s spokeswoman, Tesia Williams, adding that it would be finished as soon as possible.

The move comes after House Democratic lawmakers called for the internal review earlier this week. [nL2N1M203S]

Separately, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s top Democrat, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, also asked Price for details on the flights and called on panel chairman Trey Gowdy to hold an immediate hearing on the issue.

Representatives for Price did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the investigation, earlier reported by the Washington Post and NBC News.

HHS spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest defended Price’s travels, telling the Post: “This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people” and adding that commercial flights could have lengthy delays or force him to miss public events.

In a letter to Price, Cummings asked the secretary for details on the number of flights, the full costs and any documentation about their purpose by Oct. 10.

“If these reports are accurate, this would be a stunning and hypocritical breach of trust given that the Trump Administration … is trying to take away health care from millions of Americans and is proposing to slash funding at HHS,” he wrote.

As a U.S. lawmaker in 2009, Price chastised “the fiscal irresponsibility” of government private plane use in an appearance on CNBC that he also posted on Twitter at the time.

Questions over Price’s charter flights come as another top U.S. official, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, is facing scrutiny over his use of a government plane to fly to Kentucky for a visit to Louisville and Fort Knox.

Mnuchin and his wife viewed the solar eclipse during the trip, which was to an area of the country that experienced the full eclipse. [nL2N1LI0YD]

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by David Alexander and Jonathan Oatis)