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Pete Buttigieg’s office stonewalls taxpayer costs of swing state tour on government executive jet

EXCLUSIVE: The Department of Transportation is withholding taxpayer costs associated with Secretary Pete Buttigieg's use of government-managed executive jets.

EXCLUSIVE: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's office is refusing to share the taxpayer cost of multiple flights he took on government-managed executive jets to swing states last year in the face of an ongoing lawsuit filed to obtain the information.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is withholding the costs incurred by eight flights across two August 2022 trips that Buttigieg took to states often characterized as election "swing states." Government lawyers representing Buttigieg explained to watchdog group Americans for Public Trust, which is suing for the information, that the DOT is exempt from producing said costs because the flights were justified by security or scheduling reasons.

"Secretary Buttigieg continues to blow off the American people who simply want to know the true cost of his taxpayer-funded private jet trips," APT Executive Director Caitlin Sutherland told Fox News Digital. "After multiple FOIA requests, a lawsuit, and an ongoing inspector general investigation, Buttigieg's office still refuses to provide vital details about using a private government jet for a swing state tour, which appears more akin to campaigning than official DOT business."

"Buttigieg looks to be politicizing his role and making it clear that he believes he’s above accountability and transparency, a dismissive attitude that seems to be endemic throughout the Biden administration," Sutherland said.

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The first of the trips of which the DOT is withholding taxpayer costs involves one flight Buttigieg and senior staffers took on a government jet to Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 11, 2022, for an event announcing grants awarded under the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program. The RAISE program was established by President Biden's 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Government lawyers told APT the costs of the flight to Tucson would be withheld because Buttigieg's use of the jet was justified by unexpected commercial flight cancelations.

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The second of the trips of which the DOT is withholding costs involves seven flights Buttigieg and his staff took on a government jet to Florida, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada and New Hampshire during an Aug. 23-26, 2022, trip dubbed the Building a Better America Tour. The tour — to states that, like Arizona, have widely been considered swing states in recent federal elections — was scheduled to announce more RAISE grant recipients.

The lawyers representing Buttigieg in the ongoing lawsuit filed by APT explained the secretary and his staff used a government jet for the trip because of "security concerns" and, therefore, the costs of that trip would also be withheld.

"The way I usually travel is in economy class aboard an airliner like everybody else," Buttigieg told lawmakers during a House hearing in September after he was questioned on his use of government jets. "When we do it differently, it's often because it will save taxpayer money."

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That line of questioning — during which Buttigieg failed to mention there are cases, like his two trips in August 2022, when the use of government jets doesn't save taxpayers money — came after multiple Fox News Digital reports highlighting how the transportation secretary has utilized two taxpayer-funded Cessna 560XL private jets managed by the DOT's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In December 2022, Fox News Digital reported that, based on flight tracking data, Buttigieg had taken 18 trips on the FAA-managed fleet of executive aircraft which are reserved for government officials on occasions when flying commercial isn't feasible. The flight records aligned with Buttigieg's internal calendar obtained at the time by APT.

That report led the DOT Office of the Inspector General to open an investigation in late February into Buttigieg's extensive use of the FAA's fleet of executive jets. Moments after the inspector general initiated the audit, Buttigieg welcomed the action, saying he mainly flies on commercial airlines and that he "usually" uses the jets if it saves taxpayers money. 

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"The Secretary travels by commercial airline the vast majority of the time and has directed that travel and logistical decisions be grounded in efficient and responsible use of taxpayer dollars," a DOT spokesperson told Fox News Digital on Tuesday.

"The exceptions have been when the Department’s career ethics officials, who have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, determined that the use of a 9-seat FAA aircraft would be either more cost-effective or should be approved for exceptional scheduling or security reasons," they continued.

The spokesperson declined to comment on the agency's decision to withhold the taxpayer costs of the August 2022 flights.

APT filed an information request for the costs associated with Buttigieg's travels on the FAA jets in late 2022 and filed two subsequent requests for similar data in January 2023. In June, after the FAA delayed production of the information APT requested, the group filed its lawsuit — which yielded the latest information — to force the agency to share the data.

The FAA then, for months, repeatedly delayed processing APT's information requests related to Buttigieg's flight records. Late last month, after its months-long delays, the agency finally shared with APT its internal cost analyses for 10 of the 18 flights Buttigieg took on government jets in 2021 and 2022.

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According to the data, those 10 flights cost taxpayers an estimated $31,255.72, the equivalent of more than $3,100 per flight. The eight outstanding flights from August 2022 likely cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more based on the available information.

The DOT, though, estimated that if Buttigieg flew commercial for those 10 flights it would have cost taxpayers more than $25,000 extra compared to flying on the FAA's executive fleet. However, it is unclear how the agency assessed commercial costs in its analyses.

In one example, for a September 2022 trip Buttigieg took to Montreal, the DOT estimated it would cost $2,179 for him to travel commercial roundtrip from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. But a cursory search conducted by Fox News Digital shows multiple airlines regularly offer roundtrip options between those airports that cost less than $500.

Additionally, United Airlines charges government officials a fixed-rate of $267 to travel between the two cities, according to the General Services Administration, which has contracts with various airlines under its City Pair Program. The program is designed to ensure low prices for official federal government travel.

"Most people who have purchased an airline ticket know prices can vary based on multiple factors including time of day, proximity to departure date, destination, and demand," the DOT spokesperson told Fox News Digital. 

"The commercial flight costs were calculated through a professional government travel booking service that takes into account flights with enough seats to accommodate the Secretary and Department personnel accompanying him on the trip as well as the specific scheduling constraints. The professional service would then provide the cheapest flight option possible given travel parameters, which is reflected in the analyses."

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