Mnuchin’s Pricey Government Travel Breaks From Coach-Flying Predecessor

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill on Feb. 14, 2018. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill on Feb. 14, 2018. Susan Walsh/AP

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has never traveled on a commercial flight during his tenure, according to newly released documents, breaking the practice of at least some of his predecessors.

Mnuchin has spent nearly $1 million of department money to fly on military aircraft, internal Treasury documents obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington show. The outlays previously sparked a probe by the agency’s inspector general. The flights included both domestic and international travel to Kentucky, New York, Florida and Nevada, as well as to Ottawa, Canada, and an array of countries in Europe and the Middle East.

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Mnuchin’s avoidance of commercial flights stands in stark contrast to the travel practices of President Obama's first Treasury secretary. Treasury documents received by Government Executive after a records request show Timothy Geithner took just three “premium” flights during his four-year term. The first was from Washington to Tokyo. The second was from London to Frankfurt, Germany, and the third was from London to Washington. The trips, listed as business or first class, were for “mission” or “special agency mission” travel and were approved because they were more than 14 hours or no space was available in coach. They cost about $8,000, compared to an estimated $2,000 for coach alternatives.

At a panel discussion in Washington hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration on Thursday, Nani Coloretti, who served as Treasury’s assistant secretary for management under Geithner, said the former secretary tried to set a tone with his travel. That even extended to the peak of the financial crisis, when Geithner was regularly receiving death threats.

“This is especially important as a leader,” Coloretti said, “and little behaviors matter. When I worked for Secretary Geithner, he flew coach domestically. That served as a signal to all of us to be prudent with taxpayer dollars.”

The IG’s office cleared Mnuchin for his travel, though it criticized the secretary for failing to adequately justify the use of non-commercial flights.

“In almost all cases a single boilerplate statement constituted the whole analysis and justification for designation and use of military aircraft, despite the fact that the memo clearly calls for a more rigorous and complete provision of facts and arguments,” Rich Delmar, the IG counsel, said in October.

CREW’s Chief FOIA Counsel Anne Weismann said Mnuchin considered “first and foremost his own comfort and ease.”

“The public still has no reasonable explanation for why Secretary Mnuchin apparently has never used commercial aircraft while his predecessors did, or why he needs military aircraft that can accommodate 120 passengers when his travel manifests contain far fewer names,” Weismann said.

Tony Sayegh, Treasury's assistant secretary for public affairs, said Mnuchin's travel in 2017—including air, train, vehicles and hotels—totaled $1.2 million. By comparison, he said, Jack Lew, Mnuchin’s more immediate predecessor, averaged $2.8 million per year on total travel costs.

Mnuchin is one of several Trump administration cabinet heads to become engulfed in travel-related scandal. Health and Human Services Department Secretary Tom Price resigned following reports he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private, chartered flights. Other members of Trump’s team, such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs  Secretary David Shulkin, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, are currently or have been under investigation for their travel practices.

That led Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to issue a memorandum last year instructing agency heads that all travel on government or chartered aircraft must receive approval from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, sent a letter to agency leaders after several of the travel reports surfaced reminding them that their conduct “sets a powerful example for the employees in your organization.” Apol implored the agency heads to adopt a “should I do it?” rather than a “can I do it?” mentality.

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