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Navy secretary sought OK for $243,000 flight to COVID-stricken ship after returning from Guam

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly (US Navy/Released)

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly took his $243,000 trip to the COVID-19 ravaged USS Theodore Roosevelt before formally asking for approval to use extra pilots to accommodate his schedule, according to documents and a Navy official.

Once in Guam, Modly made a brief appearance on the ship, gave a 15-minute speech excoriating the captain he had fired for beseeching the Navy for help for his crew, and potentially exposed himself to coronavirus. Modly and two staff members are in quarantine, according to a Navy official who was not authorized to comment publicly. The pilots were not exposed to potential infection, the official said.

A 2018 policy instituted under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prompted Modly’s office to file the request for a waiver, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY. The directive seeks to limit senior officials to one air crew per trip to curb the cost of travel by military aircraft. Waivers have been issued to senior officials visiting troops in combat zones.

Modly’s office had informed the Pentagon orally before the trip that he intended to use more than one crew, the Navy official said.

The 35-hour, $243,000 trip cost Modly his job and has roiled the Navy as it seeks to care for the 589 sailors from the Roosevelt who have tested positive for COVID-19. One sailor has died from the disease, and another is in intensive care, the Navy announced Tuesday.

On April 4, Modly flew with members of his staff and an additional air crew from Washington to Hawaii aboard a C-37B, a Gulfstream 550 business jet modified for military use. In Hawaii, Modly and his staff joined another party that included the new commanding officer of the Roosevelt. They then flew to Guam, leaving behind an air crew, according to his request for the waiver. Modly returned on April 6 to Hawaii, where the extra air crew was waiting to provide his “timely return” to Washington.

The waiver request is stamped April 7, the day Modly resigned amid criticism for calling Capt. Brett Cozier, the former commander of the Roosevelt, too naive and stupid to be in charge. Modly’s exposure to the virus forced him to tender his resignation offer remotely. Defense Secretary Mark Esper accepted and named James McPherson to fill Modly’s post.

President Donald Trump has waded into the controversy, criticizing Crozier for writing the letter but suggesting his career not be ruined for having a “bad day.” A Navy investigation into events surrounding Crozier’s letter is expected to be released this week.

Modly’s decision to fly to Guam and back without allowing time to rest crews was made so quickly that his chief of staff filed the the request after his return. The letter sought an exception to the June 2018 policy memo written by Mattis’ Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Using an extra crew can divert it from other missions and waste limited resources, according to a Pentagon official who has been involved in travel planning but is not authorized to speak about it. Use of an extra crew can indicate poor trip planning, the official said.

The letter was sent to the Pentagon’s Executive Secretary, an organization inside the Defense secretary’s office that approves military air travel for senior Pentagon and cabinet officials.

“Rapidly changing events in Guam with (the Roosevelt) response necessitated a short-notice decision to travel on a Saturday, resulting in our office not seeking an advance exception to policy,” wrote Robert Love, Modly’s chief of staff.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and a member of the Armed Services Committee, called Tuesday for an an investigation into Modly’s trip.

“Modly fired Capt. Crozier for not adhering to the chain of command, yet he flies to Guam costing taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars – endangers the lives of two flight crews – and does this all without getting approval from the secretary of Defense,” Speier said. “This warrants an investigation, not just a quick resignation with yet another Trump appointee slinking off. We must demand accountability.”

On Tuesday, Esper said approval of the waiver was not his responsibility but added that travel by senior leaders is “invaluable” for their understanding of military operations. He noted that travels extensively as Defense secretary and did so as Army secretary, his previous post. Esper himself needed a waiver as Army secretary to lead a delegation to the Invictus Games for wounded warriors in Sydney.

Modly’s predecessor, Richard Spencer, avoided the need for a waiver in 2018 by flying home on a commercial airliner from the Middle East, records show.


© 2020 USA Today