Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, an exclusive Georgia resort where he and his wife own land, a day and a half before he addressed a group of local doctors at a medical conference that he and his wife have long attended.
The St. Simons Island trip was one of two taxpayer-funded flights on private jets in which Price traveled to places where he owns property, and paired official visits with meetings with longtime colleagues and family members. On June 6, HHS chartered a jet to fly Price to Nashville, Tennessee, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides. Price toured a medicine dispensary and spoke to a local health summit organized by a longtime friend. He also had lunch with his son, an HHS official confirmed.
An HHS official said both the Georgia and Tennessee trips were for official government business and were paid for by the department.
Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics official for President George W. Bush, said Price’s trips may have been legal but were ethically dubious.
“To use a charter flight on something that combines personal and government business, I think it’s highly unprofessional and really inappropriate,” Painter said — especially if personal business represented a disproportionate part of the trip.
HHS has long maintained that Price, whose use of chartered aircraft is under investigation by the HHS inspector general, has not violated Federal Travel Regulations, which state that officials can charter a plane only if “no scheduled commercial airline service is reasonably available (i.e., able to meet your departure and/or arrival requirements within a 24-hour period, unless you demonstrate that extraordinary circumstances require a shorter period) to fulfill your agency’s travel requirement.”
Like some of the other 26 flights that Price took on corporate jets since May identified by a POLITICO review, the trip to Tennessee appears to have occurred despite the existence of multiple commercial flight options. The trip to Georgia, while less direct, also could have been accomplished with a routine connecting flight through Atlanta’s busy international airport.
On Aug. 4, Price flew a Dassault Falcon 2000 twin jet from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had given a speech to a flu vaccine manufacturer, to Brunswick Golden Isles Airport, which is about a half-hour drive from St. Simons Island. It was the same plane that had shuttled him between five states in four days, one that HHS had chartered through Classic Air Charter for more than $86,000, according to federal contracts.
The plane arrived in Brunswick at 4:02 p.m. the afternoon before the start of the two-day Medical Association of Georgia retreat and roughly 40 hours before Price addressed the group, according to airport records and people familiar with the event. At about the same time, there were connecting commercial flights from Raleigh to Brunswick via Atlanta that would have gotten Price to St. Simons Island that evening.
Painter questioned why Price needed to travel on Friday afternoon to St. Simons Island when his speech wasn’t until Sunday.
“One night is appropriate for a speech in Georgia, not two nights,” Painter said, given that Price was traveling around the East Coast.
The Nashville trip offered even more commercial options. On June 6, Price took a Learjet 55 — a $17,760 round-trip flight, according to a federal contract — that departed from Washington Dulles International Airport at 9:12 a.m. ET and touched down in Nashville at 9:44 a.m. CT.
Two commercial flights that morning followed similar itineraries. An American Airlines plane departed Reagan National Airport at 9:05 a.m. ET and landed in Nashville at 9:39 a.m. CT. A Southwest Airlines flight left Baltimore-Washington International at 9:18 a.m. ET and arrived in Nashville at 9:54 a.m. CT.
Commercial airline tickets with government discounts would have cost between $102 and $333 per person round-trip between the two cities, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.
The afternoon event was the first-ever Healthy Tennessee Summit organized by Dr. Manny Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon and prominent local Republican who’s met with President Donald Trump and was featured as an “Obamacare victim” in a White House video posted in June.
Sethi, who says he hasn’t given money to Price, has nonetheless donated $15,000 to the Tennessee Republican Party since May 2016; the party’s Twitter feed hailed Sethi last year as “one of our closest friends.” Sethi also said that Price has been a mentor for years.
In his remarks, Price reminisced about his longtime fondness for Sethi, and both men referenced Price’s personal ties to the city — chiefly, that his only son went to Vanderbilt University and still lives in the city. Price also owns a condominium in Nashville valued at more than $150,000, according to county records.
Price’s agenda in Nashville, which was planned just days in advance and came as Senate Republicans were trying to pass a bill repealing major parts of Obamacare, was also lightly scheduled, say individuals with knowledge of Price’s travels. Price spent less than 90 minutes combined between his two scheduled events — about an hour touring the Dispensary of Hope medication dispensary in the morning, and about 20 minutes giving his speech at the Healthy Tennessee Summit in the afternoon.
The trip was so last-minute that Price wasn’t part of the summit’s formal meeting agenda; attendees were given a handout with the secretary’s biography. Reporters weren’t informed when Price would be speaking until less than an hour before he arrived at the summit. The meeting website still lists an outdated agenda.
Local health care leaders said the trip was a surprise to them too. “We heard that he was here on the day of” his visit, said one health care business executive who often works with lawmakers. “I only know what I read in the [paper] about his trip.”
Meanwhile, Price didn’t take any questions at the summit and promptly left for the airport when his speech was done by 2:40 p.m. His charter plane departed less than 40 minutes later.
Sethi, the summit’s organizer, said he felt lucky to get even a few minutes with the secretary because Price’s time was so valuable.
“In Nashville, there were like 20 other things on his docket,” Sethi said.
One of them was lunch with his son, Robert Price, who is a musician in Nashville. It occurred during a nearly three-hour block of Price’s schedule between when Price departed the Dispensary of Hope around 11:30 a.m. CT — “He had to leave for the rest of his Nashville meetings,” said a staff member at the dispensary — and his arrival at the health care summit around 2:15 p.m. CT.
Painter said Price’s trip to Nashville raised multiple ethical concerns. Despite spending nearly $18,000 on a Learjet, Price spent just five-and-a-half hours in the city and with only two official visits on his calendar — an hourlong tour of the dispensary and a 20-minute speech — that bookended his lunch with his son.
“If [Price] flew out there commercial and he had a lunch with his son, no one would bat an eyelid,” Painter said. “But he’s combining all these different ways of stretching it,” Painter added, listing off the expensive charter flight, Price’s personal lunch and choosing to make a speech to a little-known group run by a prominent Republican.
“They’re playing games with the rules,” Painter said.
The trip to St. Simons Island, the largest of the “golden isles” on the coast of Georgia and a popular destination for well-heeled professionals from Atlanta and other Georgia cities, was also lightly scheduled.
Both Price and his wife were on familiar turf. An orthopedic surgeon from the Atlanta area whose involvement with the Medical Association of Georgia helped launch his political career, Price spoke for about an hour on Sunday, Aug. 6, to a group of roughly 20 doctors involved in the Georgia Physicians Leadership Academy, as did other Georgia state lawmakers who are physicians, including Price’s wife, Betty Price.
Price has taught communications skills at the physician leadership development event for nine years, according to a spokesperson for the Medical Association of Georgia. The group said it did not pay for his travel or any other expenses related to the St. Simons meeting.
Both Price and his wife, a physician and a member of the Georgia state House of Representatives, have longstanding ties to the island. For years, Price held congressional fundraisers at the King and Prince Resort — the same venue that hosted the physicians’ retreat — often on the first weekend of August, the same days that he visited this year.
Local property records show that the Prices, who reside in the Atlanta suburbs, also own undeveloped land on St. Simons that Price valued at more than $1 million in financial disclosure forms this year.
Price was originally scheduled to take a charter flight to Georgia on Thursday, Aug. 3, one of three planned stops that day beginning with an opioids roundtable in Illinois and with a short layover in Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit Seqirus, the flu vaccine manufacturer. But while the roundtable, featuring GOP congressman Darin LaHood, took place as planned, the North Carolina and Georgia trips were rescheduled as Price went back to Washington for one night.
Price then flew down to Raleigh on Friday, Aug. 4, for a brief stopover before continuing on to the Georgia resort later that day.
“It was a 45-minute visit,” said a spokesperson for the Raleigh-based drug vaccine manufacturer. “I think he had something else to get to.”
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