BY ELVINA NAWAGUNA
Energy Secretary Rick Perry told lawmakers Thursday that his use of private aircraft for work travel is sometimes justified because his department’s national laboratories and some sites he has to visit are too remote to be accessed by commercial airlines.
Perry and four other administration officials are under scrutiny for exorbitant private travel at taxpayer expense.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce’s Energy Subcommittee, where Perry was testifying Thursday about the department’s priorities, demanded that he address the allegations surrounding his travel expenses.
“I continue to be concerned by the amount of money this administration is spending when it comes to noncommercial travel for members of the Cabinet and their staff,” Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. said, addressing the former Texas governor.
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While not denying the reports of more than $50,000 in travel expenses for chartered planes, Perry said those plans were made thoughtfully and were the only options for some of the remote destinations he has had to travel to — including the 17 national laboratories.
Otherwise, he said, he frequently uses Southwest Airlines for his travel, including for his frequent weekend trips to his home in Texas.
“I make Southwest Airlines pretty happy,” Perry said.
On Sept. 29, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned amid reports he had racked up about $1 million in taxpayer expenses for private and military flights. At the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt is the subject of a probe by the agency’s inspector general for his travel expenses. The Interior Department’s inspector general is also looking into the use of chartered and military flights by Secretary Ryan Zinke. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has come under fire for similar expenses.
One of Perry’s chartered flights occurred the day before Price resigned amid embarrassing news headlines.
Texas Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton reminded Perry at the Thursday hearing that if he uses private travel for work-related trips, he is required to seek approval and to disclose the expenses.
Perry told lawmakers he would be more “thoughtful” of taxpayers when he plans his future travel, but said he would also ask his agency to look into the travel expenses of previous Energy secretaries.
Pallone has requested an investigation from the DOE’s watchdog into Perry’s charted travel expenses.
“This is of particular concern given the extreme budget cuts the Trump administration proposed for the upcoming fiscal year including successful programs that help everyday Americans,” Pallone said.