Tom Price left his job as Health and Human Services secretary in September, but the investigation into his use of private jets for official travel now threatens to enmesh others in the department.
The department’s inspector-general’s probe will review who approved — or should have been approving — Price’s use of private jets on at least 26 trips from May to September, some of them quick jaunts on routes heavily traveled by commercial aircraft, according to three people with knowledge of the probe.
The investigation, along with escalating demands from Congress for information on how Price obtained permission to use at least $400,000 of taxpayer money for the private jets, adds an extra dose of uncertainty to a department that’s already roiled by questions of who will replace Price, and internal feuds over who may have leaked information about Price’s travels, according to current and former HHS officials.
Price’s use of corporate jets appears to run afoul of federal regulations stating that private travel should be approved only when commercial flights aren’t feasible, and the inspector-general probe is likely to put a spotlight on HHS Assistant Secretary for Administration John Bardis, the official designated in department rules as overseeing the travel approval process along with the HHS general counsel’s office.
Bardis is, in some ways, a unique appointee — a Georgia-based entrepreneur who was named by Price to the job in March. His medical-supply business MedAssets, which he founded and led until early 2015, is headquartered in Price’s former congressional district. The company was sold for $2.7 billion about two years ago, and Bardis’ resulting wealth from the sale — and generosity around the office — has led some in HHS to nickname him “the billionaire.”
Before joining the federal government, Bardis used his own corporate jets to fly executives, sometimes for charity missions, which may have made him more indulgent of Price’s requests for one, according to one individual who’s worked with him.
Federal contract records show that Price’s private charter flights were booked through Bardis’ office. But while Price resigned, Bardis remained at work on several HHS projects, including helping to draw up a cost-savings plan that is expected to result in significant personnel cuts across the agency. The plan has caused significant discomfort throughout the agency, which has only been compounded by the uncertainty surrounding the investigation into Price’s travel.
HHS declined to make Bardis available for an interview or answer questions about Bardis’ role in approving Price’s travel, or whether he or others raised any objections to the two dozen-plus charter flights Price took during his brief tenure.
“The Trump administration will work to ensure all officials follow appropriate rules and regulations when traveling, including seeking commercial options at all times appropriate and feasible, to ensure the efficient use of government resources,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement.
In early November, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, urged the committee to subpoena the White House and HHS to force comprehensive information about the flights, including cost and who was on them, after the department sent heavily redacted documents with few details. Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Cummings are overseeing the bipartisan probe.
The HHS documents, released by Cummings, identified three HHS aides who joined Price on private jets in April and May. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also traveled with Price on several trips that focused on the opioid epidemic, and Cummings is demanding that the White House provide further information on her trips.
Price’s traveling companions aren’t responsible for the secretary’s decision to use private jets, but their presence on the trips could raise questions about whether they questioned his use of department resources for travel on private jets.
Meanwhile, current and former HHS officials also say speculation is rife about who will replace Price as the head of HHS, as well as the future of various aides with close ties to Price. POLITICO first reported in October that Alex Azar, a former drug company executive who worked in HHS during the George W. Bush administration, is the front-runner for the job.
Departures among political staffers have been limited, according to departmental sources, but that is expected to change after the next secretary is brought in. Although the two acting secretaries — Don Wright and Eric Hargan — have brought some stability, several staffers said the department is still grappling with uncertainty after Price’s abrupt resignation.
“Many Price allies know they’re vulnerable,” said one individual who works with the administration’s political appointees. “And the White House liaison [Tim Clark] brought in a lot of people … with little to no federal experience who aren’t quite sure how these transitions of power go.”
Low-grade feuding between different factions of HHS political appointees has also festered. Multiple officials say that they’ve been accused — sometimes by the same person — of leaking details of Price’s trips, leading to a series of POLITICO stories about his travel before the HHS secretary ultimately resigned on Sept. 29.
“It was bad before,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official noted that many appointees have different allegiances and didn’t know each other before joining HHS this year. “We had Trump people, Pence people, Price people … nobody trusts each other.”
Price’s immediate predecessors under former President Barack Obama rarely used private aircraft to travel. Kathleen Sebelius, who served as HHS secretary for more than five years, almost always flew on commercial planes domestically, and her successor Sylvia Mathews Burwell shirked private planes in the U.S., according to her former aides.
Sebelius has told POLITICO and other outlets that she took charter planes only to travel to remote villages in Alaska. But internal HHS documents, first obtained by Breitbart, show that she requested charter planes on four other occasions domestically and abroad over a period of 2½ years, including trips between Topeka, Kansas, and Omaha, Nebraska, and a journey from La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Mackinac Island in Michigan and then Detroit.
The domestic trips were approved by the …read more
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