June 17, 2006 -- Most government VIPs are supposed to fly commercial on official trips. Until this year, the only exceptions were for those involved in national security such as the secretary of defense.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was not one of those exceptions, until last year, when Congress authorized him to use the jet in certain situations. After the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Congress said Leavitt could use a private jet leased by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during "emergencies and in the days following such emergencies." The CDC uses the plane to move its people to medical emergencies.
Leavitt was not supposed to use the jet for normal business travel, but according to Health and Human Services records, he used it to travel to 91 cities this year for meetings on health policy and to sell the administration's controversial Medicare drug prescription plan.
Leasing the private jet costs $3 million a year. In the first five months of 2006 Leavitt's travels cost an additional $720,000 in hourly charges.
Keith Ashdown from the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense was blunt in his reaction: "This is a gold-plated airplane being used for political purposes."
Leavitt defended his use of the jet, telling ABC News he uses it only when commercial travel is too slow to meet his schedule. "Actually, there's nothing political about this," he said. "This is carrying out the business of the Department of Health and Human Services."
Leavitt's spokesman also told ABC News that Congress authorized the HHS secretary to use the plane for "significant events." That is true, but the law makes clear that those significant events should be "unpredictable" disasters like Katrina, not scheduled meetings and speeches.
Twice this year, the CDC has needed the plane for medical emergencies, but Leavitt was using it. So the CDC had to hire another jet at additional expense. Republicans have generally defended Leavitt, but Democrats are demanding an explanation.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said, "I think it is mind-boggling that we have a secretary using a plane that's supposed to be available for medical emergencies anywhere in the country."