Be nice to your seatmates — they might be Cabinet secretaries

Steven Mnuchin, Elaine Chao (Photos: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In the wake of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s Sept. 29 resignation over his use of private jets paid for by the government, other executive branch chiefs are under scrutiny over their travel arrangements.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used government planes on seven trips this year, with the jets generally costing taxpayers about $5,000 per hour to operate. According to Chao’s spokesperson, the Transportation Department’s ethics counsel had approved the private flights, and Chao had predominantly been flying on commercial airlines.

The Chao news came on the same day that the Treasury Department issued its review of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s $800,000 bill for using government planes. Mnuchin took private flights eight times and withdrew a ninth request to use one on a trip to Europe with his wife. The Treasury’s internal counsel found nothing illegal about Mnuchin’s flights but questioned the justification for them.

“What is of concern is a disconnect between the standard of proof called for,” wrote Rich Delmar, counsel for the Office of the Inspector General for the Treasury, “and the actual amount of proof provided by Treasury and accepted by the White House in justifying these trip requests.”

Price resigned after it was revealed he had spent more than $1 million in taxpayer funds on private air travel. The trips included a flight from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and a visit to Nashville, where Price did 90 minutes of work and had a lengthy lunch with his son. Price positioned himself as a budget hawk during his time in Congress, criticizing Democrats for wasteful spending and attacking then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her use of a private plane.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Following Price’s resignation, a memo was sent to executive departments requiring approval by White House chief of staff John Kelly for all noncommercial travel.

“Government-owned, rented, leased, or chartered aircraft should not be used for travel by Government employees except with specific justification,” wrote Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Earlier this week Reuters reported that Energy Secretary Rick Perry took a private flight to Ohio the day before Mulvaney issued the new policy. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under investigation by his department’s own inspector general for a $12,375 private flight from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana. Before the investigation was announced, Zinke had dismissed questions about the flight as “a little BS over travel.” Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent nearly $60,000 on private flights. The EPA has also spent nearly $25,000 on the construction of a secure phone booth for Pruitt’s office.

The Washington Post reported last week that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin spent half of a 10-day European trip this summer sightseeing. Per the Post, the overseas jaunt took place less than two weeks after he signed a memo instructing top VA staffers to determine whether “employee travel in their organization is essential.” In the wake of the report, the VA announced that the agency will begin posting details of the secretary’s travel online, including itineraries and the disclosure of any use of government or private aircraft.


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