Obama Appointee Was Never Punished For His Taxpayer-Funded Personal Travel

Chris White | Energy Reporter

An Obama-era appointee was never punished last year for using federal employees as chauffeurs and personal travel assistants, according to a report Tuesday from Bloomberg.

Mel Watt, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), directed FHFA employees to drive him and his wife to the airport for personal trips. He also made them book flights unrelated to government business, the agency’s inspector general said in a December 2016 report.

Watt directed staff to make these arrangements for him and his family nearly 30 times, the agency’s inspector general noted in a 2016 report. The report said the requests were “inconsistent with standards of ethical conduct.” The IG’s report was initially published last year but Watt’s name was redacted, as were the details of the case.

Bloomberg’s report surfaced after Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after it was revealed that he used private planes on the government dime.

Price came under fire for reportedly taking five chartered jets over the course of a week earlier this year, spending roughly $400,000 on private planes since May. Other Trump officials are being scrutinized for similar offenses – EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, for instance, was criticized for taking non-commercial flights during his first seven months on the job.

Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was criticized for chartering a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Montana this year aboard a private plane owned by an oil executive, according to a Washington Post report from September. His flight cost $12,375, an Interior Department spokeswoman told reporters.

The EPA and Interior Department’s ethics offices approved of Pruitt and Zinke’s travels beforehand because they were booked only when feasible commercial flights were unavailable.

Watt, for his part, responded to questions about his use of federal resources for private means at a House Financial Services Committee hearing Tuesday. There is no evidence so far suggesting he used taxpayer money explicitly for pricey private trips.

“I was told this was the policy,” he said in response to a question from Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan. “It’s just a coordination issue from my perspective.”

Some of Watt’s requests were of a dubious nature. He once directed an FHFA staff member to make reservations for Watt and his wife to go on a family trip to Puerto Rico. Another employee was tasked with driving to Philadelphia to pick him up at an airport and take him back to Washington, D.C.

FHFA Inspector General Laura Wertheimer, who conducted the review, didn’t recommend any punishment for Watt and said that senior FHFA officials didn’t understand the agency policies involved. She said Watt and others should stop misusing federal employees.

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