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US Health Secretary Tom Price resigns over private jet scandal

The US health secretary was dogged by scandal after it was revealed he spent large sums of public money on private jets. The White House has announced drastic reductions to cabinet members' travel on private planes.

USA Washington Präsident Trump nach der zurückgezogenen Gesundheitsreform (Reuters/C. Barria)

The departure of Price (left) is another in a long series of exits from the embattled Trump administration

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price has stepped down in the wake of heavy criticism over his use of private charter flights for official government business.

Price used costly private aircraft on 26 separate occasions costing taxpayers $400,000 (€340,000), according to news outlet Politico. He attempted to rectify the scandal by paying back a fraction of the total cost.

US President Donald Trump warned on Friday he had been considering Price's future. "I don't like the optics," Trump had previously told reporters, because the president was trying to save taxpayers money. "I'm not happy, I can tell you I'm not happy," he said.

The trips were ostensibly official business, but they included destinations where Price owns property. The scandal prompted a broad investigation of the travel expenses of top political appointees. Price's resignation makes him just the latest in a long series of exits from the Trump administration — some forced, some voluntary.

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Scandal prompts policy change

The White House said later on Friday that it is giving Chief of Staff John Kelly authority to sign off on government travel on government-owned, rented, leased or chartered aircraft.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney issued the new guidelines, informing executive branch department heads that they are public servants and that every penny they spend comes from taxpayers. Mulvaney also told department heads and Cabinet secretaries to consider commercial airline travel as a more appropriate use of public funds, even for very senior officials' travel. The new policy is to have only few exceptions. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have also been put under the spotlight for their travel expenses. Critics have attacked Zinke over his use of three charter flights since taking office in March, including a $12,375 late-night flight from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana. He dismissed the controversy on Friday as "a little BS over travel."

In August, Treasury boss Mnuchin — a wealthy former Wall Street banker —was pressured to justify use of a government plane to fly with his wife to Kentucky. The trip was ostensibly billed as a visit to the US gold reserve at Fort Knox, Kentucky, but which critics charge was really to view an eclipse of the sun.

Mnuchin apologized after his wife, Louise Linton, posted a photo to Instagram showing her leaving the plane holding designer clothing and accessories.

aw, jbh/kl (dpa, AFP, AP, Reuters)

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