Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

No price to pay for feeding from the government trough

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press/File
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Every day it seems we are reminded that in Donald Trump’s America petty corruption, venality, and unethical behavior is no impediment to a career in public service. Just look at Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Here’s a guy who used his position as a US congressman to personally enrich himself. According to a report back in December in the Wall Street Journal,

Price “traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related companies over the past four years while sponsoring and advocating legislation that potentially could affect those companies’ stocks.”

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That was only the beginning. Later it was revealed that Price got a sweetheart stock deal from an Australian biotech firm that had increased 400 percent in value from the time he bought it. And he actively lobbied regulators to relax rules that would have negatively affected the share prices of securities he had purchased. None of that stopped Price from being confirmed as Secretary of HHS and now it’s been revealed that Price has continued his unethical behavior while in the executive branch.

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The same public official who has pushed several Obamacare repeal bills that would cut billions from federal health spending and who earlier this year told Congress that “tough choices” must be made to “reduce spending” within his department has eschewed commercial air travel and instead taken 24 private charter flights as secretary since May — at a cost of $300,000 to taxpayers.

Some of the exotic and hard to reach locales visited by Price include Nashville, Charleston, West Virginia, and Philadelphia. The latter charter flight cost taxpayers an estimated $25,000. Just as an FYI to Secretary Price, Amtrak is great bargain and wonderful way to spend a few hours if you’re traveling along the Eastern Seaboard. It’s only a few hours to Philadelphia and Washington’s Union Station is only a brisk 23-minute walk from Price’s office.

But why would Price want to mingle with the great unwashed where he might be bothered with probing questions like: Why are you trying to take my health insurance away from me?

Even though previous HHS secretaries rarely if ever took chartered flights, Price’s office has defended his use of them.

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According to his press office, “This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people.” If Tom Price’s goal was truly to meet real Americans and, even better, ticked off Americans — go to an airport. There’s lots of them there.

But then Price wouldn’t quite fit in with a president and cabinet who have taken feeding from the government trough to a whole new level. We have Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who is a multimillionaire and yet requested a government jet to take him on his honeymoon. There’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is being investigated by his agency’s inspector general because of his frequent travel home to Oklahoma. And of course there is the president himself, who runs an administration in which officials charge the federal government more than $1,000 to stay in his Mar-a-Lago resort, but also is personally profiting from foreign officials booking rooms in his hotels.

This has become the new normal in Washington. “Draining the swamp” has been replaced by “Let’s Frolic In The Swamp.” Indeed, in normal, non-bizarro America, the outcry over Price’s charter flights would have forced him from office by now. Then again, in non-bizarro America, Price’s insider trading stock deals would have ensured he never became HHS secretary in the first place. But that’s the old way of doing things. In Trump’s America, the Price charter flight story will likely be subsumed by the next Trumpian outrage.

More likely than not Price will remain in office and will continue his quest to cut HHS’s budget and look for ways to hamstring or upend Obamacare. Once long-standing political norms on the use of taxpayer dollars for personal benefit will be further eroded. The only potential bad news for Price is that now he’ll likely have to cut back on his use of chartered flights, but hold your head high Secretary Price: no one said that public service didn’t come with sacrifices.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.