WASHINGTON — As he traversed the world on taxpayer-funded flights, Tom Price made it a habit to write home, repeatedly sending celebratory letters back to staff members at the Department of Health and Human Services detailing his time on the road, and complimenting agency employees who “ensure the good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”
In May, Mr. Price celebrated his 15th week on the job by detailing his trip to Geneva, snapping a photo of the lush grounds of the United Nations compound, and a mountain range in the distance, as he attended the World Health Assembly.
Weeks later, opening with the words “another fantastic week,” Mr. Price described a June trip to Nashville, Tenn., where he owns a condominium, leaving out the fact that he had flown on a chartered plane and, according to Politico, stopped to have lunch with his son.
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The “Week in Review” travelogues from Mr. Price, who resigned under fire on Friday, were sent to the department’s approximately 80,000 employees. At times they included links to a Flickr account, where agency staff members posted more than 1,800 photographs of Mr. Price’s globe-trotting and other agency work, including a recent dinner in Liberia.
The dispatches outraged many members of the department staff, given that the travel took place at a time when the agency is facing hundreds of billions of dollars in proposed budget cuts, as well as certain budget-related restrictions on work-related travel for employees.
“I can’t comprehend that someone wants to throw people out of nursing homes, take millions off Medicaid and deny children and the disabled health care, but is riding around in private chartered jets, at times taking his wife,” said J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal workers’ union, who spoke shortly before Mr. Price’s resignation. “This is like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’’
Mr. Price did not begin the practice of the “Week in Review” dispatches, which were also sent by Sylvia M. Burwell, Mr. Price’s predecessor in the Obama administration. In September 2016, Ms. Burwell discussed a trip she took to Rio de Janeiro to attend the Paralympic Games, as well as trips to Ohio, Iowa and Florida in July 2016 — all three of them swing states — to see how the Obama administration’s health care effort had brought “important new tools to help people live healthier lives.”
But a former official under Ms. Burwell told CNN that the former secretary generally flew commercial flights for trips. Ms. Burwell did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
Mr. Price, who was publicly rebuked on Wednesday by Mr. Trump for running up at least $400,000 in charges on private jets, drew the president’s ire again on Friday, only hours before his resignation. “I certainly don’t like the optics,’’ Mr. Trump told reporters, although he called Mr. Price “a very fine man.’’
“I’m not happy, I can tell you that,” the president said. “I’m not happy.”
Mr. Price’s travels included a trip last summer to the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado, where he flexed his muscles in a group photo. And in an Aug. 18 letter titled “Hello From Alaska!”, Mr. Price updated staff members on plans to revamp the agency “to put people at the center of our work to be responsive and innovative.”
In all, there were 28 photo-filled, week-in-review updates so far. A dozen discuss Mr. Price’s official travels to various spots worldwide, including Texas after Hurricane Harvey, as well as to several communities struggling with the opioid drug crisis.
Travel on private planes has been a source of trouble before for high-level federal employees, including John H. Sununu, who resigned from his post as chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush in 1991, after he was criticized for his use frequent use of military planes as well as a private jet for political events.
A congressional investigation during the tenure of President George W. Bush also found that over a five-year period ending in 2006, cabinet officials and agency heads at ten departments and agencies traveled aboard leased or chartered private aircraft on at least 125 trips to more than 300 locations, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1.5 million.
Tesia D. Williams, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said Friday that her office started looking into Mr. Price’s travel on Sept. 18, following the first of a series of Politico stories that have so far reported that the secretary has run up more than $1 million in noncommercial flights. Those trips include the flight to Nashville and another trip to Georgia, where Mr. Price spoke at a medical conference near a resort island where he owns property.
The inspector general’s office, Ms. Williams said, “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.”
“We take this matter very seriously, and when questions arose about potentially inappropriate travel, we immediately began assessing the issue,” Ms. Williams added. “Work is underway and will be completed as soon as possible.”
This week, the House Oversight Committee began an investigation into the travel of Mr. Trump’s senior administration members. The inquiry, opened by Representatives Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the committee’s chairman, and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s ranking Democrat, will examine the use of private and government travel by senior officials from 24 federal agencies.
The committee has requested passenger names, destinations and the source of payment for each trip, among other details, to be turned in by Oct. 10.
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a liberal nonprofit group, said he has a hard time accepting Mr. Trump’s angry reaction to Mr. Price given that the president has repeatedly flown on Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida, and other destinations.
“He himself personifies the problem,” Mr. Weissman said. “But there is no protective shield for the rest of the cabinet. The president seems to think he can get away with things, but the cabinet cannot.”
In statements and in television interviews, Mr. Price did not dispute the reporting surrounding his travel.
“It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer,” Mr. Price said in a statement on Thursday. “I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials.”
Over the course of the week Mr. Price said repeatedly that his trips cleared both legal and administrative hurdles within his agency. Mr. Price also has said he would stop taking private jets and instituted an internal review of agency policies.
Steve Eder contributed reporting