WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Donald Trump’s cabinet may be the wealthiest in modern US history, but several members have been embroiled in money-related scandals including private flights, luxury dining sets and Wimbledon tickets — all at taxpayer expense.
Speculation mounted Friday over whether the axe would fall on any more officials within the president’s inner circle, as Trump hinted at making additional changes a day after sacking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week.
Political attention might be turned to whether National Security Advisor HR McMaster will be the next ousted, but recent ethical misjudgements and questionable decisions made by several Trump advisors have put the cabinet under a cloud of controversy.
Accusations of high-flying excesses have swirled since Trump’s inauguration 14 months ago. Last year the target was health secretary Tom Price, who reportedly spent more than $400,000 of public money on trips using private aircraft.
Trump, who has repeatedly pledged to drain the swamp in Washington, said in September he was “not happy” about the development. Price was ousted days later.
It turned out Price was the tip of the iceberg. Five other cabinet members are under scrutiny for their behavior.
“Trump cabinet officials have a track record of unnecessary, extravagant expenditures at taxpayer expense,” said Melanie Sloan of ethics watchdog American Oversight, which filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documentation that could expose government abuse.
“It seems it’s not only the president who has a penchant for luxury.”
The most recent flap involves Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who stands accused of spending $31,000 of taxpayer money on a new dining set in his office dining room.
Carson has insisted he was “as surprised as anyone” about the ordering of the set. But emails obtained by American Oversight show Carson and his wife helped select the furniture themselves.
Carson says he has cancelled the order.
Deep palace intrigue surrounds Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, whose tenure started out well but whose standing with the White House has eroded.
He is accused of spending $122,000 on a nine-day trip to Europe with his wife, which included sightseeing at castles and taking in professional tennis matches.
“Secretary Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets,” the VA’s inspector general said last month in a scathing report.
It also said Shulkin’s chief of staff doctored emails so the agency could justify including his wife on the trip.
Facing concerned lawmakers, Shulkin told a Senate budget hearing that “the distraction is something I deeply regret.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has come under some of the most intense scrutiny, most recently over reports that his department was spending nearly $139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office.
Zinke told Congress this week that he managed to negotiate the cost down to $75,000.
He is also under pressure over costly US Park Police helicopter flights last July that allowed him to return to Washington for a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, and several other flights on non-commercial aircraft.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has faced a public backlash for taking dozens of first-class flights, which he said were necessary to avoid “unprecedented” personal threats.
House Oversight Committee chairman Trey Gowdy, a Republican, has pressed Pruitt for answers about the travel excesses.
Pruitt told CBS News that he and his security detail were making adjustments, and that Pruitt would be flying coach far more often.
More recently, Pruitt has found himself in hot water over his agency paying $43,000 to install a custom, sound-proof booth in his office so he can communicate securely with government officials.
At the request of Congress, the EPA’s inspector general is investigating.
Meanwhile, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has found that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former investment banker and Hollywood producer, has bilked tax payers by needlessly flying on military and non-commercial jets for $1 million.
The Treasury Department rejected the findings as mischaracterizations and said it followed appropriate protocol.
The revelation followed negative scrutiny last August after Mnuchin and his wife, the actress Louise Linton, traveled aboard a government jet to visit the US Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky. AFP