Republican Looks Into How Often Mnuchin’s Team Flies First Class

  • Treasury Department, SEC, CFTC asked for travel documents
  • Senate appropriators say they may seek additional information
First class travel of federal government officials overseeing the financial services sector is getting more scrutiny, with a Republican chairman demanding more information from the Trump Administration.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is waiting for a response to its request for details on the non-coach travel practices of the Treasury Department and many other federal agencies in advance of moving bills setting agency spending levels for fiscal 2020. Financial Services Subcommittee Chairman John Kennedy (R-La.) said the requests were made in May.

Kennedy, who took the helm of the subcommittee this year, said the panel wants to learn “if anybody’s abusing their travel rights.”

The initiative is notable because its scrutiny of an executive branch run by his own party.

“When I play poker with friends they may be friends but I always cut the deck,” Kennedy said in an interview.

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(Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Secretary Stephen Mnuchin’s Treasury Department is under scrutiny by Senate appropriators examining compliance with federal travel rules.

Federal travel rules require officials to book trips in the most cost-efficient way for taxpayers. Trump administration officials including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and former Environmental Protection Agency Administration Scott Pruitt faced a number of travel controversies while they were in office.

Inspectors general at both agencies raised concerns about Price’s use of expensive military flights and private charters, and about Pruitt’s use of first class and business class travel for himself and his security detail.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a millionaire former investment banker and movie producer, also drew attention when his airfare costs hit $1 million on eight trips during 2017.

Walter Shaub, who formerly headed the Office of Government Ethics, criticized Mnuchin’s use of a government plane to fly to Kentucky on the day in August 2017 that Fort Knox had a perfect view for a solar eclipse. Mnuchin’s trip to join Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) for the afternoon viewing cost taxpayers almost $27,000, the Treasury Department’s IG said.

“That’s about the first time since 1974 that the Treasury secretary had to check on the gold at Fort Knox,” said Shaub, now senior advisor to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Treasury defended Mnuchin’s practices, saying his 2017 tally was about a third of the $3.4 million his predecessor in the Obama administration spent in 2016 for such travel. The department also said that as a member of the National Security Council Mnuchin has a critical role advising on security matters and needs military aircraft at all times to ensure access to secure communications equipment.

‘Wasteful Spending’

In their letters to the Trump Administration, Kennedy and Financial Services ranking member Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said the information they seek is to address “frivolous and wasteful spending” on premium class airline tickets for government employees.

“Independent watchdogs, including the Government Accountability Office and inspectors general, have long warned of serious breakdowns in internal controls and the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in improper purchases,” the lawmakers said in the letters sent to agencies.

The subcommittee’s targets include Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service.

The panel didn’t ask for any information about the travel spending of Executive Office of the President or the Office of Management and Budget, even though spending for those is part of the subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

A federal travel regulation generally prohibits federal employees from using first class and business class airline travel. In their request for more information, the appropriators cited that regulation plus a provision in the current omnibus appropriations act (Public Law 116-6) enacted in February. The Financial Services section of that law says that none of the appropriated monies can be used for first class or business class travel by the executive branch agencies funded by the act.

GSA Has Same Data

Kennedy’s panel sought information for three fiscal years, beginning with fiscal 2017 which began on Oct. 1, 2016 and crossed from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

Shaub of CREW said the appropriators’ demands shouldn’t have been necessary because a system already exists to regularly collect that information.

Subcommittee Letter to GSA

“General Services Administration collects data from agencies on premium travel and so it’s interesting the request wasn’t made to GSA unless they want to compare the information from both places,” Shaub said.

GSA gathers reports from agencies on their employees’ use of any other than coach-class transportation. Also, it collects agency reports on the use of government aircraft by senior executives.

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(Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) listens as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a May 15, 2019, Senate Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee hearing.

But GSA doesn’t distribute that information.

Groups such as the Campaign Legal Center said they have been rebuffed by GSA when they pursued Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the data. After a court battle, GSA recently agreed as part of a settlement to release reports dealing with use of government planes in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The CLC is now requesting 2018 reports from the agency.

Delaney Marsco, CLC legal counsel, said that when Sen. Charles Grassley(R-Iowa) headed the Senate Judiciary Committee, he pushed for travel data and the GSA eventually turned over information on the use of government planes in 2015 only.

“GSA argues they don’t own the documents and can’t hand them over,” Marsco said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com