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Leavitt Flying High on Taxpayer Dime

June 13, 2006
Press Release

Use of luxury jet raises questions of abuse

June 13, 2006 - Senior Ways and Means Committee Democrats John Lewis (GA) and Pete Stark (CA) today questioned Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt's use of a costly jet, leased by the Centers for Disease Control for emergency purposes, to facilitate a promotional tour in support of the Administration's stalled Medicare prescription drug program.

"I think it is a shame and a disgrace," said Rep. John Lewis, "that a Member of the President's cabinet would use resources placed in the public trust, resources intended to rush emergency disaster relief personnel to Americans who are seriously ill, for a public relations junket. Apparently, there were instances that the CDC could have used this jet for justifiable medical emergencies, while Mr. Leavitt had the plane engaged. This is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars."

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) leases the jet through Phoenix Air Group in Cartersville, Georgia for a price of $252,000 per month, with additional fees of $3,000 per flight hour for its use. As mentioned in the attached legislation, Congress authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to use the plane during "times of emergencies" and "in response to significant events." According to CDC and HHS officials, taxpayers have already spent over $2.1 million for the use of the airplane in 2006.

"This plane is supposed to help the CDC respond to emergencies. Secretary Leavitt has abused his authority to use this plane by flying to press conferences and sticking taxpayers with the bill," cautioned Rep. Pete Stark. "While Secretary Leavitt has a job to do, he must be accountable to taxpayers who trust him to use their money responsibly. At a staggering cost of $3,000 per flight hour, Leavitt's jet-setting in the CDC plane has been far more expensive than any first class ticket would have been. These expenditures call into question his judgment and his use of the public trust."

Conference report on FY 2006 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Act (H.R. 3010, H.Rept. 109-337; PL 109-149)

SEC. 227. In addition to any other amounts available for such travel, and notwithstanding any other provision of law, amounts available from this or any other appropriation for the purchase, hire, maintenance, or operation of aircraft by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shall be available for travel by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and employees of the Department of Health and Human Services accompanying the Secretary or the Director during such travel.

From the Statement of Managers:

The conference agreement includes a new provision granting authority to the Secretary to use, at his discretion, charter aircraft under contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Secretary has significant operational responsibilities in times of emergencies and in the days following such emergencies. The Department is the primary agency for directing public health and medical services in response to significant events. Due to the unpredictable nature of such events, the conferees believe the Secretary must be in a posture to respond and communicate as an event is unfolding. Yet, existing travel limitations on the Secretary make this extremely difficult. The availability of CDC's charter aircraft will allow the Secretary to immediately return to Washington or rapidly move to another location as the situation dictates, at the same time being able to securely communicate with and direct the Department.

The conference agreement also extends this authority to the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The conferees understand that, due to existing restrictions, the Director on a number of occasions has not been able to accompany employees of the Agency responding to public health emergencies.

The conferees expect the Secretary and the Director of CDC to exercise this authority in an economical and judicious manner. The conferees request that the Secretary report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate regarding the use of this authority in the annual justification of estimates for the Appropriations Committees and at the end of the third quarter of each fiscal year.