Yesterday we looked at a newly opened investigation by the Inspector General of the EPA into the travel expenses of agency administrator Scott Pruitt. To say the least, that one appears to be a bit of a fishing expedition, particularly when you consider that it’s being launched by an Obama holdover and involves the “staggering sum” of twelve thousand dollars or so. Close on the heels of that announcement we are told that a strikingly similar investigation is being launched into the travel arrangements of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
At issue is Mnuchin’s August 21st trip to Kentucky where, among other things, he took in the view of the total solar eclipse from the roof of Fort Knox. Some comments made by his wife on that outing were quickly lambasted in the press, but what the IG is looking at is whether or not this was a legitimate government business expense or just a sightseeing expedition on the taxpayers’ dime. (Washington Post)
The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing the flight taken by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, last week to Louisville and Fort Knox, Ky., following criticism of their use of a government plane on a trip that involved viewing the solar eclipse.
“We are reviewing the circumstances of the Secretary’s August 21 flight … to determine whether all applicable travel, ethics, and appropriation laws and policies were observed,” counsel Rich Delmar wrote in a statement to The Washington Post late Thursday.
“When our review is complete, we will advise the appropriate officials, in accordance with the Inspector General Act and established procedures,” Delmar added.
The article touches on Ms. Linton’s comments after someone questioned her about her rather expensive clothing and accessories which she tweeted about, complete with hashtags giving a nod to the designers. While her response (calling the woman who asked, “adorably out of touch”) certainly would seem tone deaf to seasoned political observers, the 36 year old actress is a private citizen, not on the government payroll. What she spends her money on is her business. Mnuchin already reimbursed the government for her flight on the government jet as required by law and that should be the end of that part of this flap.
Mnuchin had other business in the area and met with Mitch McConnell at Fort Knox, so it would seem that the trip qualifies as official business. But the fact that it took place on the precise day of the eclipse and both he and McConnell (along with others) were on the roof to watch it certainly does feed into the idea that the timing of the trip was awfully “convenient” in terms of getting a chance to see the spectacle. (And they picked a great spot too. It wasn’t far from where I watched the eclipse myself, just south of Knoxville.)
Also, unlike the case with Scott Pruitt, it’s more difficult to claim that there’s a partisan witch hunt going on here. The current Treasury IG is Eric M. Thorson. He’s a Bush Appointee from 2007, a former Special Assistant to the Senate Republican Leader and was an Air Force pilot who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. I have no idea if there’s any history of animus between the two men (nothing turned up on a quick search) but it doesn’t sound like this would be some orchestrated attempt to undermine the President by going after one of his cabinet members.
In conclusion, my initial suspicions about this being a second fishing expedition don’t look all that solid once you dig into the details. It may certainly turn out that this was an official business trip which will pass inspection for the costs incurred, but you can’t deny that the optics of it are bad enough to warrant a closer look. Mnuchin’s people are saying the trip was planned months in advance, but hey… so was mine. It came down to a last minute decision based on cloud cover, but Kentucky was always a top choice for many in the eastern half of the country who were hoping to witness the sun going dark.
Does that justify making him refund the cost of the trip if he was also engaged in legitimate Treasury business down there? I would assume not. But it certainly leaves the taxpayers with a rather unpleasant image.