WASHINGTON ― Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price needs to travel on private jets for his job because he is extremely busy, a spokeswoman said Wednesday in response to criticism that chartering flights is expensive and wasteful.
Politico reported Tuesday that Price took five private flights just last week, including a half-hour trip from Washington to Philadelphia.
“We believe that those trips were important for him to get outside of Washington, D.C., talk to real people on the ground, and using the travel arrangements we did was the best way to get him there,” HHS spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest told HuffPost.
Cabinet secretaries usually don’t charter their own planes because doing so often is much more expensive than flying commercial. But Price isn’t the only Trump administration official flying the questionable skies.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin used an Air Force jet to visit Kentucky for an August trip that included viewing the solar eclipse. Mnuchin also reportedly requested a military flight for his honeymoon.
And EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has racked up sizable expenses for frequent commercial flights to his home state of Oklahoma. Travel expenses for both Pruitt and Mnuchin are being reviewed by inspectors general within their departments.
Democrats on Wednesday blasted Price in response to the Politico story. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees HHS, said Price had used taxpayer funds as a private jet slush fund.
“There is no reason to be regularly chartering private flights at the taxpayers’ expense between commercially serviced routes such Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia,” Pallone said.
Politico reported that on Sept. 15, Price left Dulles International Airport at 8:27 a.m. and landed in Philadelphia at 9:01 a.m. to visit an addiction treatment center. His return trip touched down in Dulles at 1:19 p.m. that afternoon.
“That morning before leaving he was in the office really early being briefed on both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, so this has been a particularly unusual time with a lot of demands on his time,” Yoest said. She added that Price works 13 hours most days.
Driving to Dulles from HHS headquarters would typically take about 40 minutes. Driving to Philadelphia would take about 2.5 hours.
Price’s use of private jets flies in the face of the Trump administration’s messaging on government spending. Earlier this year, the administration proposed slashing agency budgets, including a 17.9 percent cut to HHS.
Previous HHS secretaries didn’t use private jets, according to Politico.
Price engaged in questionable stock trades while overseeing the health industry as a congressman before being nominated to lead HHS.
In 2009, then-Rep. Price blasted private jet travel by members of Congress.