The morning of the U.S. solar eclipse of 2017, I came to work in D.C. slightly regretting that I had decided against a road trip back to my home state of Kentucky, much of which would be in the “path of totality.” As it turned out, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton had not made the same mistake; the secretary had rescheduled an earlier-delayed trip to Louisville (during which he would speak to a local chamber of commerce and visit Fort Knox, the famous home of a large portion of the country’s gold reserves) for this very day. The trip made news when the secretary’s wife posted a photo of herself on Instagram exiting the government plane they flew to Kentucky and then engaged in a back-and-forth with critical commenters before deleting and apologizing for her comments.
The reaction at the CREW office, however, was less focused on Linton’s designer clothing and more on government travel regulations. Virginia Canter, our Executive Branch Ethics Counsel, raised questions about whether it was appropriate under government travel regulations for Mnuchin and Linton to use a government-owned plane for a trip like this. We were confident that the cost of this flight would be pretty substantial, but government travel regulations provide that under some circumstances, those costs are justified. The answer wasn’t obvious — there was a lot we didn’t know about the trip at the time, like who else was traveling, what else Secretary Mnuchin was doing on the trip, and why his wife accompanied him. (I was able to contribute a little local knowledge, since I know how close Fort Knox is to my hometown of Louisville — very — and am well aware that there are lots of — cheap! — commercial flights to Louisville from the D.C. area every day, meaning it was at least unlikely that the government jet was the only option.)
We ultimately concluded that we needed to know more in order to know whether the trip was justified; Anne Weismann, our Chief FOIA Counsel, stepped in to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Treasury Department, seeking records about the authorization for and cost of the trip. We blasted out our request far and wide in the press and on social media — knowing that interest in answers to our questions would be shared by many — contributing to a firestorm of national attention and helping to start the widespread digging into cabinet secretaries’ travel which would become a huge story in coming months.
The Treasury Department, however, failed to respond to our FOIA request, meaning we had to take yet another step — we had to take the government to court. This dragged the process out for several more months, although the government ultimately agreed to release the documents we requested. Mnuchin ultimately agreed to reimburse the government for the cost of Linton’s travel; however, the documents we obtained revealed a disturbing pattern of systemic failure to adequately justify requests to use high-cost travel methods like military and other non-commercial aircraft. Read more about what we learned from the Mnuchin documents here.
While CREW was fighting in court to obtain these records, it became clear that Secretary Mnuchin was far from the only administration official who was making questionable use of taxpayer money for travel. As reports surfaced of other cabinet members’ travel, CREW sought records relating to the travel of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson.
In late September 2017, Politico published a series of stories about the travel of then Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, who reportedly had spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel for himself and his wife to Europe and around the United States; Price ultimately resigned. The Politico reporters, Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan, later published a fascinating article documenting the investigation that led to those stories, which relied on traditional journalistic sources and reporting as well as publicly available government information on websites like usaspending.gov, which was created as a result of congressional efforts to make information about how the government spends taxpayer money available and usable by the public. Diamond and Pradhan estimated that they had put in nearly a thousand hours of investigative work on this story at the time Secretary Price resigned.
Around the same time, The Washington Post reported, based on information obtained by it and others under FOIA, that between February and September of 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spent at least $58,000 of taxpayer money on charter and military flights within the United States. CBS News recently reported that during that time Pruitt also spent at least $7,000 on a round-trip business class ticket for a trip to Italy; the ticket was “several times the cost of what was paid for other staffers who accompanied him on the trip.” Based on a broader investigation of his travel, the Post concluded that “… Pruitt is distinguishing himself from his predecessors in ways that go beyond policy differences. His travel practices — which tend to be secretive, costly and frequent — are integral to how he approaches his role.” Unsurprisingly, the combination of “secretive, costly and frequent” presents substantial challenges for the agency officials tasked with ensuring that the agency follows travel rules; in mid-February, the EPA was forced to backtrack on earlier claims that Pruitt had received a “blanket waiver” to travel first class whenever he wanted due to unspecified security threats when Politico pointed out that government regulations do not permit “blanket waivers.” Pruitt’s travel is now under scrutiny by the EPA’s inspector general.
Also in mid-February, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report on a government-funded trip the VA Secretary David Shulkin took in July of 2017. The inspector general found that the third highest ranking official in the agency had lied to ethics officials and doctored official records, resulting in the agency improperly paying for the travel of the secretary’s wife on the trip. The inspector general also found that the secretary improperly accepted the gift of tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament from a U.K. businesswoman who he claimed was a personal friend of his wife’s, but who could not recall his wife’s first name when asked, and further that he improperly directed VA staff to help his wife plan their non-official sightseeing travel, among other agency failures related to the trip. Although a number of facts about this trip were reported in the press, it is unclear whether the doctored records, which resulted in a referral to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for possible criminal prosecution, would have come to light. Although the DOJ did not choose to prosecute the matter, the official did announce she would retire. Without the inspector general’s report, Congress and the public might well have remained in the dark about the agency’s failures in these areas, and those failures may well have continued.
These stories illustrate that the enforcement of travel regulations goes beyond even the important purpose of preventing waste of taxpayer money; officials who are failing to meet ethical standards in one area are often failing in others, and the tone from the top of an agency can undermine efforts by officials throughout the agency to prevent corruption.
The stories of Secretaries Mnuchin, Price, Shulkin, and Administrator Pruitt each tell their own tale of how regulations on the use of taxpayer money to pay for travel of government officials can prevent corruption, if properly implemented — and can fail to do so, if not. They also demonstrate the equally critical role of transparency measures — including FOIA, regular public release of spending data, and public release of the results of inspector general investigations — in ensuring accountability. To allow these transparency measures to languish would fatally undermine our ability to check the spread of corruption within our government.