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Nicole Lafond

Nicole Lafond is a news writer for TPM based in New York City. She is also currently earning a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and previously worked as an education reporter at The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_Lafond.

Articles by Nichole

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price is officially under investigation for his use of private jets for official business travel.

On Friday, HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson’s spokesperson told The Washington Post he is requesting documents related to Price’s travel and his staff’s justifications for picking private charter options over commercial flights.

The probe comes after Politico reported that Price’s taste for charter flights have cost taxpayers at least $300,000.

“OIG is conducting a review of Secretary Price’s Federal travel using chartered aircraft. The review focuses on whether the travel complied with Federal Travel Regulations, but may encompass other issues related to the travel,” Levinson’s spokesperson told The Washington Post. “We take this matter very seriously, and when questions arose about potentially inappropriate travel, we immediately began assessing the issue. I can confirm that work is underway and will be completed as soon as possible.”

Politico reported Tuesday that Price had taken at least five private charter flights to conduct official business up and down the East Coast last week. These reports prompted five Democratic congressional leaders to write Levinson, requesting an investigation into the matter.

The group, spearheaded by Rep. Frank Pauline (D-NJ), said they wanted to know who is paying for Price’s charter travel and how much it is costing tax payers. They said the flights appeared to violate policy that requires executive officials to use the most economical form of travel possible.

On Thursday, Politico said the agency secretary had used private planes for travel at least 24 times since May, at the cost of at least $300,000. On Friday, Levinson’s spokesperson confirmed the probe.

The inspector general isn’t the only group looking at the matter. The ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee sent a letter to Price Friday asking for documents related to all non-commercial flights he and any other agency officials have taken since assuming office in January.

Rep. Elijah Cummings’ (D-MD) letter cited Politico’s reports as well as former Congressional probes into use of private aircraft by senior officials as rationale for the investigation.

“If these recent reports are accurate, this would be a stunning and hypocritical breach of trust given the Trump administration at the same time is trying to take away health care from millions of Americans and is proposing to slash funding at HHS— negatively affecting critical programs to provide early-childhood education, fund Medicare for seniors and conduct medication research and development,” he wrote.

Cummings requested Price turn over the documents by Oct. 10.

Read the letter from Cummings below:

A new $200,000 radio ad campaign launched Friday, pressuring five key Republican senators to vote against the last-ditch effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The ads are funded by the Community Catalyst Action Fund and are running on radio stations in the home states of Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), John McCain (R-AZ), Rob Portman (R-OH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Susan Collins (R-ME) as well as in Washington, D.C. for the next week.

The group sponsoring the advertisement calls the Graham-Cassidy legislation the “most destructive repeal plan” that’s been introduced in Congress to date. A Senate vote on the bill could come next week ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline for passing Obamacare repeal via simple majority vote. 

“There’s an old saying: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results,” the narrator says at the start of the radio ads, which are similar in each state and in D.C. “Well, that’s what congressional leaders are doing right now — pushing another bad health care bill.”

The ads then remind the five senators — who either opposed or were key swing votes on previous repeal bills this summer — that the new legislation includes the same provisions as past repeal efforts, including “massive” cuts to Medicaid.

Murkowski is considered one of the most crucial senators in Republicans’ effort to whip votes. She, Collins and McCain voted against the last repeal attempt in July.  She has said she wants to see more information about how the bill would impact her state before she makes any decisions.

Community Catalyst Action Fund previously spent $1.5 million on TV ads over the summer to oppose earlier repeal efforts, The Washington Post reported.

“This bill is a last-ditch effort to turn back the clock and go back to the same damaging, secretive and partisan approach to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to cut Medicaid,” the non-profit’s executive director Robert Restuccia said in a statement. “Senators should reject the Graham-Cassidy repeal plan. Americans want Congress to abandon efforts to repeal the ACA and work in a bipartisan fashion to make our health care better and more affordable, accessible and equitable.” 

Listen to the advertisement running on Alaska radio stations below:

In a stunning admission, a White House official told Politico, “We really aren’t sure what the impact will be” of Senate Republicans’ latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The concession from an unnamed White House official comes as Senate Republicans are facing fierce criticism from industry and trade groups, governors and other state officials and health policy experts for the rushed process they are are using to get the new Graham-Cassidy repeal bill through the Senate before the Sept. 30 deadline for passing it with a simple majority vote.

Both Democrat and Republican House members have expressed concern over the process of crafting the legislation, especially efforts to push for a vote before the Congressional Budget Office has a chance to make full projections on the cost of the bill and the numbers of people who would lose insurance coverage.

In its letter to Senate leadership, the group of governors — whose opposition alarmed the White House, according to Politico — asked senators to abandon the Graham-Cassidy bill and work on crafting bipartisan legislation that would stabilize insurance markets. They urged senators to use the regular order method of writing a bill, rather than rushing the process.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act and would transform Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies into block grants controlled by individual states.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Thursday he knows what the President’s decision will be on the Iran nuclear deal, but only revealed that the President plans to take a broader approach to Iran’s “destabilizing behavior.”

Appearing on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday, McMaster stopped short of saying whether Trump plans to pull out of the 2015 multi-nation deal that limits Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear arsenal in exchange for lifting sanctions against the country, but called the agreement “fundamentally flawed.” 

President Donald Trump said this week he has made a decision about the deal, but hasn’t said whether he will pull out.

The deal is fundamentally flawed. As the President said, he called it the ‘worst deal of all-time.’ It gave the Iranian regime all the benefits up front and then the incompleteness of the deal, the flaws of the deal, the sunset clause that could really give this regime who is not trustworthy, obviously, cover to advance a nuclear program and have a threshold capability,” he said.

He said Trump wants to do something to address “Iran’s destabilizing behavior broadly” and that the administration wants to “block all paths to nuclear weapons” for Iran.

“We have all been involved in lengthy discussions (about) … the potential of the nuclear program, the need to block all paths to nuclear weapons for Iran, but their ballistic missile program, things not covered under this incomplete deal and really what they’ve done to perpetuate violence across the Middle East. …. So we have taken a holistic look at this,” he said.

He said Iran has “crossed the line” with its missile development and that “much more rigorous enforcement is needed.”

“Iran is destabilizing, not just the Middle East, but poses a broader threat, and Iran is perpetuating this humanitarian and political crisis in the Middle East,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services for contracting with agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples when placing children in homes.

The state department works with several different child placement agencies that often are affiliated with religious organizations and have rejected same-sex couples looking to adopt or become foster parents because of religious objections, according to an ACLU statement.

The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of two same-sex couples — Kristy and Dana Dumont and Erin and Rebecca Busk-Sutton — who have attempted to adopt children in Michigan and were rejected because of their same-sex marriages.

The practice violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, as well as the Equal Protection Clause, the ACLU alleges.

Michigan can’t afford to have families like the Dumonts and the Busk-Suttons turned away based on criteria that have nothing to do with their ability to care for a child,” ACLU said in a statement. “Allowing state-contracted agencies to screen out prospective families based on religious criteria not only harms the children most in need, it is also unconstitutional.” 

Michigan is not the only state that pays private agencies that end up rejecting couples based on religious objections. ACLU said it’s not just same-sex couples who are at risk either.

“It’s not just same-sex couples that are at risk. Most of these laws also would allow an agency to reject families that don’t share its faith, single-parent families, or any other kind of family that doesn’t meet its religious criteria,” the statement said. “We are hopeful that we will get a ruling in this case that will send a message to state legislatures that the Constitution does not permit these kinds of laws.”

Read the lawsuit below:

Following “troubling” reports from Politico about Health and Human Service (HHS) Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets for official travel, five Democratic congressional leaders are requesting a thorough review of Price’s travel practices, citing concerns that the trips have cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars.

In a letter to HHS’ inspector general Wednesday, the Democrats — spearheaded by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) — outlined the information Politico reported Tuesday, claiming Price’s use of private jets for five official business trips up and down the East Coast last week have cost an estimated $60,000.

The group is demanding to know who is paying for Price’s charter travel and how much it is costing tax payers.

They said federal regulations allow the use of government or charter aircraft when it is the “most cost-effective mode of travel,” but that separate HHS policy requires all travel be by the “most expeditious” means possible and should “commensurate with the nature and purpose of the duties involved.”

A spokesperson for the department released a statement Wednesday saying they try to find commercial travel options for Price as often as possible, but claimed his schedule is very hectic and it’s not always “feasible.”

They also said Price is “currently managing” recovery and preparation efforts for “three major hurricanes” to apparently illustrate his busy schedule or need for charter travel, but the trips Price made last week were meetings with health organizations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

“Given these requirements, it is unclear why Secretary Price would require such costly travel in these instances when more economical options were reportedly available,” the letter said, referencing the portion of the Politico report that outline all the commercial options available during the days and times of Price’s travel last week.

Pallone and the other Democrats who signed the letter — Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) — said the reports are “particularly troubling” because of Price’s “repeated statements regarding his intentions to reduce the waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Read the full letter below:

Following a report from Politico that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price uses private jets to travel for official business, the department insisted that it tries to find commercial travel options for the secretary.

But that is “not always feasible” with Price’s “incredibly demanding schedule,” a department spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday. 

The department said Price often works 13-plus hours a day and on top of that still tries to travel outside of Washington to meet with the “American people.”

On Tuesday evening, Politico reported that Price used a private jet to travel to conduct official business up and down the East Coast five times last week.

The department said on top of everything else on Price’s plate, he is also “currently managing” recovery and preparation efforts for “three major hurricanes,” but the trips Price made last week were meetings with health organizations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

While it’s not illegal to use a private jet, the move is unprecedented for a HHS secretary and is ethically considered a dubious practice. In an apparent response to Politico’s story, a ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), announced on Wednesday he would ask the department to see a “full accounting” of Price’s travel.

Read the full statement from the department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Charmaine Yoest:

“Within an incredibly demanding schedule full of 13+ hour days, every effort is being made to maximize Secretary Price’s ability to travel outside Washington to meet with the American people and carry out HHS’s missions. Secretary Price is currently managing public health and human services recovery and preparation efforts for 3 major hurricanes.

Secretary Price leads a $1.2 trillion agency – the largest agency in government. The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible. The President has made it clear his Administration will move power out of Washington and return it to the American people. Secretary Price will continue meeting with the American people outside of the Beltway to hear their concerns and ensure HHS makes decisions that best provide for their needs.”

The Robert E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia — which the Confederate general attended — has voted to change its name, a move prompted by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last month and the massacre at a Charleston church in 2015.

After two years of debate among parishioners, the church’s governing body voted Sunday to change the name to Grace Episcopal Church, its original name before the congregation chose to change it in 1903, 33 years after Lee’s death, the Episcopal News Service reported. 

It was a narrow victory Sunday — the vestry voted 7-5 — for members of the congregation who have been requesting a name change since a white supremacist killed nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston two years ago. 

The decision was backed by Bishop Mark Bourlakas of the Southwestern Virginia Diocese who said the debate has been a “costly process both spiritually, financially and emotionally” for the church.

The church was near and dear to Lee’s heart in the years following the Civil War, according to the Episcopal News Service. Lee lived in Lexington while serving as president of Washington College, which was renamed Washington and Lee College after Lee’s death in 1870. During those last five years of his life, Lee reportedly was invested in helping the “struggling congregation survive,” the news service said.

The parish has no record of why the name was changed 33 years after Lee’s death.

The change at the parish, where Lee served as a senior warden, follows moves by municipalities, state and federal governing bodies across the U.S. to remove Confederate statues from their communities.

The violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last month intensified the debate over what place Confederate memorials have in society. At the rally, a group of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Lee. The rally turned violent and ended in a man affiliated with white supremacists allegedly driving his car through a crowd of counter-protesters and killing one person.

Other houses of worship across the U.S. have removed Confederate memorabilia from their buildings in the wake of Charlottesville, Episcopalian News Service reported.

The Washington National Cathedral in D.C. removed a stained glass windows (pictured) that displayed images of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and the Christ Church Cathedral in Ohio is studying what to do with Confederate figures in the building after leaders asked for their removal.   

While it’s been reported that CNN and Fox News won’t hire former White House press secretary Sean Spicer as a paid contributor, NBC News confirmed Tuesday that the other three of the big five — ABC, NBC and CBS — won’t be offering Spicer a contract either.

And it’s all because of a “lack of credibility,” several network insiders told NBC.

Since he left the White House, Spicer has been seeking a contributor position at one of the networks, but executives “won’t touch him,” an executive familiar with the conversations told NBC.

Some have considered bringing Spicer on the air for “round tables,” but a contract “is not happening,” the executive said.

A person familiar with Spicer’s conversations with the news outlets said that conversations were still ongoing and claimed that Spicer may not even want a contract so he has the freedom to work with several networks.

Since leaving the White House at the end of August, Spicer has been controversially named a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and is working with Worldwide Speakers Group to find paid speaking gigs.

Spicer made an appearance at the Emmys on Sunday, apparently mocking himself for his own White House podium rant about the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Spicer told The New York Times that he “absolutely” regrets the way he treated reporters when they asked about the crowd size in January.

The former press secretary resigned in July after Trump hired quickly-ousted Anthony Scaramucci as the White House communications director.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price spent tens of thousands of dollars to take a private jet to travel up and down the East Coast last week, Politico reported.

The move isn’t illegal, but breaks with the precedent of his predecessors who took commercial flights for official business travel.

A department spokesperson declined to share details of the flights with Politico or say who paid for the trips, but said Price occasionally uses a charter aircraft for official travel when commercial flights aren’t feasible.

None of the organizations that Price met with in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania paid for his travel, Politico confirmed.

Several current and former Health and Human Services staffers told Politico that Price has been using private jets for domestic travel for months.

While not illegal, the practice is considered suspicious and is characterized as an irresponsible use of taxpayer funds, Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics told Politico. 

In apparent reaction to Politico’s reports, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) announced Wednesday he’s planning to ask the department’s Inspector General to look into Price’s use of private planes for government business, according to a statement.

The ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce committee said he wants to see a “full accounting” of Price’s travel.

Read the full report — which outlines all the feasible methods of commercial travel at the dates and times of Price’s trips — here.

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