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How Trump's health department fell in love with charter jets – The Washington Post

In April 2017, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services grappled with an urgent request: how to get Tom Price from D.C. to a conference at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Laguna Niguel, Calif., after bad weather delayed the secretary’s planned flight aboard Delta Air Lines.
“Secretary needs to go to LA today, and leave by 3 p.m.,” one travel specialist wrote in an April 6, 2017, email obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. The travel aide was seeking a colleague with access to a government purchasing card. “Do you have someone who can PCard a charter aircraft on short notice?”
Officials quickly secured a $29,000 charter flight — which also had to be scuttled, as tornadoes plagued the D.C. region. But the day’s events left a scar on Price’s top aides, who vowed that the Trump Cabinet official would never again wait on a commercial airline’s schedule, and foreshadowed a five-month travel sprint in which the health department spent $456,000 in taxpayer money on Price’s charter flights across the United States.
One of the final trips came in September 2017, when health officials chartered a jet for Price, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and their aides to fly round trip between Washington and Philadelphia — at a cost of $14,955 to taxpayers, according to government records.
“I just talked to the [assistant secretary for administration] and this aircraft is a steal for the price,” Rasheed Williams, an official who handled many of Price’s travel arrangements, wrote in another email obtained by The Post, as he urged colleagues to choose the Embraer 135LR jet that Price and Conway would later be spotted disembarking.
The department’s Office of Inspector General later concluded that Price’s flight to Philadelphia wasted more than $10,000 in taxpayer money compared with flying commercial, and that he could have made the trip by train.
The documents — released to The Post four years after Price’s abrupt ouster following Politico reports about his charter-jet spending — offer new insight into an early Trump administration controversy. The episode reshaped the federal health agency, with Price and his allies swiftly replaced by Alex Azar and a new leadership team, who came to believe that rival officials had worked to undermine Price and engineer his ouster. The claims drove a wedge between the department’s leaders and fed long-festering frustrations that exploded last year as coronavirus-related pressures bore down on the health agency, contributing to Trump officials’ fractured response to the pandemic.
In addition to reviewing the newly obtained documents, The Post spoke with officials involved in Price’s travel arrangements, his former colleagues at the department and government investigators who later probed his charter-jet plans.
In an email to The Post, Price defended his travel record, sharing a pair of analyses by law firm Steptoe & Johnson that argued the former secretary’s charter flights were necessary for his schedule and that faulted the inspector general’s report.
“In every case, such travel was on official business and approved by appropriate officials,” the firm wrote in a 2018 analysis, citing Price’s need to respond to “unprecedented events,” such as natural disasters.
Steptoe & Johnson declined to comment.
Price, in a statement, said, “Serving as the Secretary of Health and Human Services was the honor of a lifetime, having had the privilege to lead a department with an international responsibility, over 80,000 employees worldwide and a budget of over $900 billion.”
The former health secretary in 2017 reimbursed the government nearly $60,000 to cover what he said was his share of travel costs.
Conway, a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump, said in an interview she immersed herself in helping promote the administration’s agenda and was unaware of potential problems with her plane travel with Price, including joining him at events to discuss opioid addiction.
“I didn’t know the rules about planes,” Conway said. “This is my first government job, and I never had security in my life. I did what they told me to do, I went where they told me to go, and I used whatever mode of transportation they told me to use.”
Conway said she recalled being surprised at being told they would fly from Dulles International Airport to an event in Philadelphia. Having grown up near Philadelphia and driven from Washington to there dozens of times, her first instinct was it would be more efficient to drive north on Interstate 95.
Some senior administration officials suspected Price invited Conway, who at the time traveled with a Secret Service detail, to help justify his private jet travel. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has demanded since 2018 that Conway repay her share of travel costs, the committee said. But Conway said White House officials advised top aides at the time not to reimburse the government for those expenses because doing so could force repayment — and impose huge costs — for lower-level staff who joined their bosses on flights.
John Bardis, who served as HHS assistant secretary for administration and wrote memos that justified using taxpayer money to pay for Price’s travel, defended his role in the arrangements but said he regretted the spending.
“My office and I did not make decisions about private or commercial travel for Secretary Price. Our role was to pass along guidance and requests verbatim from the Secretary’s travel office to the Office of General Counsel, and to provide procurement functions,” Bardis said in a statement. “If I had been a decision-maker on these issues, I would have advocated for less private travel.”
As a Georgia congressman and member of the tea party caucus, Price positioned himself as a fiscal conservative, rising to chair the House Budget Committee in 2015 with a vow to slash wasteful government spending. The surgeon, an early supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was rewarded with a Cabinet post; Trump praised Price as “exceptionally qualified to shepherd our commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
But Republicans’ repeated failures to repeal the Affordable Care Act led Trump to sour on his health secretary, whom he blamed for not doing more to ensure success on Capitol Hill. That frustration curdled after reports of Price’s extensive use of charter jets, which caught the White House by surprise and seemed to refute the president’s pledge to “drain the swamp.” Publicly chastised by lawmakers and privately berated by Trump, Price resigned 10 days after the news first broke.
HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns amid criticism for taking charter flights at taxpayer expense
The travel controversy that ended Price’s short tenure began within a day of his failed trip to Los Angeles, as his HHS deputies began erecting a system to ensure Price would never again need to scramble for charter jets, according to the documents obtained by The Post.
The bookings were overseen by Bardis, a donor to Price and longtime health-industry executive whose team invited charter jet companies to submit bids on Price’s potential trips, modeling the plan on emergency-travel protocols used when responding to hurricanes and other disasters. Bardis then wrote a memo to justify each trip, which was sent to the department’s lawyers for authorization.
In an April 11, 2017, meeting to discuss the plan, career HHS officials warned Bardis that the inspector general had investigated prior administrations’ attempts to use charter jets, said two officials with knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Bardis “was told, be aware that every time there’s a charter involved, there will be an IG investigation — it’s typical,” said one of those officials, who attended the meeting. “He went ahead anyway.”
Bardis told The Post he passed along the warnings.
“After I was asked to research procurement of private aircraft, I made it clear to the Secretary’s office that our career staff raised concerns about private air travel,” Bardis said in a statement.
A trip to Ohio in April became the first test of the travel arrangements, with some of Price’s senior-most deputies comparing flights on commercial airlines with charter-jet alternatives. According to a draft itinerary obtained by The Post, Price could spend 75 minutes visiting an opioid manufacturing plant in Ohio if he took a two-hour nonstop flight on Delta — but he could get an additional 45 minutes at the plant if he took a charter jet.
“Explore charter options,” then-HHS Chief of Staff Lance Leggitt instructed staff in an April 20, 2017, email. The health department booked a Learjet for $14,120. A comparable round trip on Delta would have cost about $300 per ticket, investigators later concluded.
Leggitt did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting comment.
Under federal rules, the department’s lawyers still needed to approve each charter flight, and it fell to Bardis to make the case that charter jets were the only option for Price’s schedule, which he did in memos between April and September. Bardis also repeatedly asserted that booking Price on a commercial flight, without a guarantee that his security detail would be seated close to him, would be “putting the secretary at risk.”
The following year, the inspector general concluded the charter-jet spending was a waste, saying Bardis had failed to justify his claims about Price’s schedule or threats to his safety. For instance, Bardis argued that Price needed a charter jet to visit Nashville on June 6 because it was the only way to ensure the health secretary could join Trump for a White House event the same day. But the White House called off its event two days before Price’s trip.
“Rather than cancelling the scheduled chartered flight, the Office of the Secretary chose to continue with the chartered flight at a cost of $17,760,” the inspector general found in July 2018. Price spent 90 minutes in Nashville touring a medicine dispensary and speaking at a health summit arranged by a longtime friend, in addition to having lunch with his son who lived there.
The inspector general also “found no evidence” that Price’s team consulted with the department’s security office “to determine whether security of former Secretary Price would be negatively affected had commercial flights been used,” according to the watchdog’s 2018 report.
Price’s travel plans eventually pulled in more than a dozen staff, including career officials who vetted charter-jet options, negotiated with travel companies and often scrambled to accommodate political appointees’ last-minute demands.
Officials worked into the evening Aug. 7 to secure a flight so Price could join Trump for a meeting at Trump’s New Jersey golf club the following day, booking a Gulfstream private jet for $21,824, according to emails reviewed by The Post. Another challenge came the evening of Sept. 12, as officials rushed to locate a replacement plane for Price’s trip to Maine and New Hampshire the following day, after learning the scheduled charter jet wasn’t large enough to accommodate an additional passenger.
At times, the officials raised questions about the proposed travel. “Rasheed [Williams] has requested the attached proposal be awarded. The quote is $86,598.33. Given the high cost, are we bumping a ceiling or running afoul of anything for these services?” travel specialist Manny Van Pelt wrote July 24, ahead of Price’s planned trip to Colorado, Illinois and North Carolina.
Van Pelt and a colleague pressed Williams about Price’s plans to travel abroad.
“I need a rationale on why you are not going with the lowest quote. This is significantly higher than other options and other vendor,” contracting specialist Patrick Joy wrote to Williams on Aug. 11, as officials debated whether Price needed a Gulfstream jet to fly to Asia. The health department ended up setting aside more than $1.4 million to pay for Price’s eight-day trip to China, Japan and Vietnam, according to documents obtained by The Post, which was separate from the $456,000 spent on charter flights in the United States.
Williams did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Joy said he and colleagues were trying to ensure the trips complied with federal contracting rules.
Van Pelt referred questions to HHS, which declined to comment.
But officials generally executed Price’s bookings without objection, including a late June trip that included a speech to a physicians association in San Diego followed by a nearly day-long stopover at the Aspen Ideas Festival, a prominent conference in the Colorado resort town.
A year later, the inspector general took a dimmer view of the trip.
“For the 3.5 hours of official engagements, the Government spent $50,420 for the use of a chartered aircraft, when other options, including commercial travel, would have accommodated his schedule,” the watchdog wrote.
Altogether, the inspector general said that at least $333,014 of taxpayer money had been wasted on Price’s decision to fly charter jets rather than commercial airlines, even after Price’s repayment.
Steptoe & Johnson, which said Price needed to have access to charter jets given his “rigorous travel schedule” and demands on his time, criticized the inspector general’s office for what it said was a one-sided report.
“In fact, the IG’s office never sought to interview Dr. Price during the course of its investigation, and Dr. Price was not consulted by any IG employee about any of the issues raised in the IG report,” the firm wrote in its 2018 assessment. The inspector general said in its report that while it did not interview Price or other travelers, it did interview more than 20 people involved in the department’s charter-jet booking and travel process.
Price took more than 30 flights aboard charter jets between April and September, often accompanied by top deputies and, on at least 10 occasions, Conway and White House staff. The trips typically included additional perks, such as onboard catering, which could be pricey — the health department was quoted $534.37 for 10 boxed lunches for a Sept. 18 flight — and was billed separately, according to the records obtained by The Post. One vendor spent nearly two months seeking reimbursement for catering on an August charter trip.
As media reports exploded about Price’s travel, the secretary was amid a five-leg charter jet trip that took him from his home in Atlanta to Florida and then Oklahoma. As reporters pressed the health department about his spending, Price and his staff canceled the final leg on Sept. 21 and took commercial flights instead. A charter jet dispatched to meet Price in Stillwater, Okla., then returned as planned to Atlanta, without HHS personnel aboard and still incurred more than $8,600 in taxpayer spending, the inspector general later found.
That same day, the career officials who had been ordered to carry out Price’s travel plans braced for a new wave of scrutiny.
“There have been some news reports about the Secretaries us[e] of Charter airplanes,” Joy wrote to his team. “I want to have all orders readily available if [the inspector general] asks about them.”
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