Government Travel Run Amok: Just what did agency heads do wrong?
Every day the rogues’ gallery of Cabinet secretaries who have used private and military aircraft for government travel expands, along with a growing sense of public outrage and certainty that the swamp in Washington is ever deepening. The growing scandal has now claimed its first victim; HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned last Friday after revelations that he spent more than one million dollars travelling on military and private aircraft domestically and to Africa, Asia, and Europe accompanied by his wife. The Trump administration’s other response came from OMB, which issued a directive late Friday night that reminds agency heads of governing law and policy on the use of government aircraft and mandates that from now on, any travel not to meet mission requirements or not done on a “space available basis” requires prior approval from the White House Chief of Staff.
Without knowing the scope of the problem, it is impossible to know whether the newly imposed requirement of prior White House approval from General Kelly will prevent further abuse by Cabinet officials seeking to live high off the hog at government expense. What we know so far appears to stem from journalists with agency sources willing to spill the beans on the enormous sums of money their agency heads are spending on non-commercial aircraft travel to give speeches, attend conferences, and even meet with potential donors.
As an example, last Thursday Politico made the big reveal about Secretary Price’s foreign travel totaling $500,000. Journalists also exposed questionable trips by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, including a charter flight he took with his staff from Las Vegas to Montana on a plane owned by oil and gas executives at a cost of $12,375, after speaking to a political donor’s professional hockey team, among other scheduled events. For his part, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reportedly has flown on at least four military and non-commercial flights at a cost of over $58,000. And who could forget Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s trip to Fort Knox where he viewed the solar eclipse, accompanied by his wife decked out in designer-brand clothing, a trip that prompted CREW to submit its first (of many) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the travel records of a cabinet secretary?
These details certainly tell a tale of greed, waste, and likely fraud that the resignation of Secretary Price does not absolve. But the public reports tell only part of the story; missing are the critical details that CREW has sought from multiple agencies under the FOIA, like who authorized these trips, how they were justified under governing regulations and policies, and precisely how many non-commercial flights each of these and other Cabinet secretaries took. Without these details, there is no way to know the scope of the problem and just how so many Cabinet secretaries could get away with such flagrantly improper conduct.
Which leads to the question of precisely what these officials – and likely others – have done wrong. An answer to this question starts with understanding a somewhat obscure directive, OMB Circular No. A-126, Improving the Management and Use of Government Aircraft, which OMB issued in revised form in 1992. At its core, the government-wide guidance restricts and controls travel on government aircraft, recognizing the significant financial burdens it places on agency budgets. The guidance defines the term “government aircraft” as “any aircraft owned, leased, chartered or rented and operated by an Executive Agency,” thereby excluding commercial aircraft used on scheduled airlines from the covered category of “government aircraft.” Charter flights, however, are treated as government aircraft.
The OMB circular starts from the premise that government aircraft can be used only in two instances: (1) for “official travel,” or (2) on a “space available basis.” From there, the circular breaks down the category of “official travel” into several subcategories. One subcategory is “required use travel,” which the circular defines as those situations where government aircraft is necessary (1) “because of bona fide communications or security needs,” or (2) “exceptional scheduling requirements.”
Another subcategory of “official travel” is travel that is not to meet “mission requirements,” which includes travel “to give speeches, to attend conferences or meetings, or to make routine site visits.” But the authority to use government aircraft, including charter flights, for these purposes is very limited. Those travelling to give speeches, attend conferences, or make routine site visits cannot use government aircraft unless: (1) no commercial aircraft, including charter service, is “reasonably available,” defined as meeting the traveler’s departure and/or arrival requirements within a 24-hour period; or (2) the actual cost of using a government aircraft does not exceed the cost of a commercial airline or charter.
Applying these requirements to the known trips of Secretaries Price, Zinke, and Mnuchin and Administrator Pruitt raises serious questions about their propriety. The publicly available details of Secretary Price’s jaunts to Europe, Africa and Asia describe their purpose as attending meetings and conferences and giving speeches. Because they were not to meet “mission requirements,” his use of government aircraft was improper unless its cost did not exceed the cost of a commercial flight or no commercial flights were “reasonably available.” The $500,000-plus price tag makes clear the cost exception is inapplicable. Nor is there any reason to believe Secretary Price was unable to find “reasonably available” commercial flights in lieu of taking very pricy military aircraft for foreign travel.
The same can be said for Secretary Zinke’s privately chartered flight from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana. Reportedly, Secretary Zinke was in Las Vegas at least in part to speak to a new National Hockey League franchise at a private dinner, an event that does not seem to even qualify as official business. At most it was a speech, placing his trip outside the scope of one necessary to meet “mission requirements.” And yet he charged the government for the $12,000 plus tab, a cost well in excess of a one-way commercial flight fare from Las Vegas to Montana, and with multiple commercial flights available.
Likewise, Secretary Mnuchin traveled to Lexington, Kentucky with his wife on a government aircraft to speak at a local Chamber of Commerce luncheon and make a site visit to Ft. Knox, both activities that are not part of mission requirements as defined by OMB Circular A-120. Like his fellow cabinet heads, Secretary Mnuchin clearly had commercial flight options that he passed up for far more costly government aircraft.
As the news of these scandals has broken, agency officials have rushed in to proclaim that all trips were properly authorized. But these claims ring false; you do not have to be a world traveler to know that you can cross the globe for less than $500,000. Moreover, if the trips were properly authorized, why have the agencies in question refused to respond to our FOIA requests seeking relevant details? The answer seems obvious: the requested records would show the world just what kind of public servants these individuals really are and just how shoddy their authorization process is.
Although the initial shock from these stories may have worn off, we should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by Secretary Price’s resignation and the latest OMB directive. The American public has yet to be made whole for these grotesque excesses, and without knowing the full story, we cannot know if enough has been done to prevent a repeat. This is but one of many of those moments of truth in this administration where its leaders have a choice – chart a new direction of accountability and transparency or continue their swampy ways.