House Oversight Leaders Press Tardy Agencies to Reveal Their Travel Costs

Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., launched the probe into travel spending late last month. Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., launched the probe into travel spending late last month. Carolyn Kaster / AP file photo

The bipartisan team of House investigators looking into Trump administration overspending on Cabinet member air travel issued a subpoena threat on Wednesday to two agencies “noncompliant” with document requests: the Agriculture and Justice departments.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sent letters to the heads all major agencies indicating whether they were compliant, partially compliant or noncompliant with the panel’s Sept. 26 request.

The panel launched its probe late last month following a spate of reporting on possible abuses of travel privileges by department heads using private or military planes for sometimes personal or political events. Several inspectors general are investigating the problem that has implicated Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price lost his job over his use of private charter flights at taxpayers’ expense. On Thursday, an HHS spokeswoman confirmed to Government Executive that Price, before departing, followed through in writing a check to the Treasury partially reimbursing the government for the improper flights.

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“Under 5 U.S.C. § 5733, official travel on the part of federal employees must be ‘by the most expeditious means of transportation practicable’ and ‘commensurate with the nature and purpose of the [employee's] duties,’ and by no means should include personal use,” Gowdy and Cummings wrote in September.

After reviewing documents submitted by agencies by the Oct. 10 deadline, the House lawmakers reserved their harshest language for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “If you are unable to provide the originally requested documents and information by October 24, 2017, we ask your staff to schedule an in-person meeting to discuss the status of the matter with committee staff,” said the letter signed by Gowdy and Cummings. “If you have not complied with the request or satisfactorily provided a good-faith commitment for complying in full on or before October 31, 2017, the chairman intends to issue a subpoena for the materials.”

For some of the agencies that were fully or partially compliant, the lawmakers asked for additional information. To Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, for example, they wrote, “Please provide the requested documents and information from the September 26 letter that fall within the timeframe of January 1, 2016, to January 19, 2017. This additional request is necessary to assess the frequency and nature of this issue to help determine whether new policies or regulations need to be enacted or perhaps to even change the nature of appropriations to your department.”

The entities in partial compliance were the: White House, U.S. Agency for International Development, EPA, NASA, the Small Business Administration and the departments of Defense, Education, HHS, Homeland Security, State, Treasury, Transportation and Veterans Affairs.

The fully compliant agencies were the General Services Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Office of Personnel Management, the Social Security Administration and the departments of Commerce, Energy, Labor (despite the request for additional information), Housing and Urban Development, and Interior.

The White House, in a letter to Gowdy and Cummings, reminded them that the law governing official travel does not apply to the president and the White House, and that some of the documents relating to non-career appointees reside with the agency components.

Update: This story has been updated to note that former HHS Secretary Tom Price did in fact issue a check to the Treasury to cover the some of the cost to taxpayers of his improper flights

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