WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin flew from Washington to Los Angeles this month on the private aircraft of Michael R. Milken, the billionaire “junk bond” king who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990 and served two years in prison.
The flight, which was confirmed by the Treasury Department on Friday, was the latest example of Trump administration officials using luxury or government aircraft for personal reasons. Mr. Mnuchin, who was accompanied by Secret Service agents on Mr. Milken’s jet, travels frequently to California to visit his children who live there.
A Treasury Department spokesman said that Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Milken have known each other for years and that after reviewing internally the secretary’s plans to take the flight, it was decided that he did not need an ethics waiver. Mr. Mnuchin has reimbursed Mr. Milken for the cost of the flight, the spokesman said, but did not disclose the amount.
Trump administration officials, including Mr. Mnuchin, had been encouraging President Trump last year to pardon Mr. Milken, who pleaded guilty to six criminal charges related to securities transactions undertaken in the 1980s. Mr. Milken, who had to pay $600 million in fines, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released after two years.
A spokesman for Mr. Mnuchin said he did not know if the idea of a pardon for Mr. Milken came up during the flight. Other presidents had also considered pardoning Mr. Milken, including President Bill Clinton.
In recent years, Mr. Milken has rehabilitated his image through his philanthropy and his nonprofit think tank, known as the Milken Institute. He has funded efforts to increase global prosperity, help youth and advance medical research.
It is not illegal for government officials to fly on private aircraft, but it can raise ethical questions about possible conflicts of interest.
Mr. Mnuchin has previously come under fire for air travel decisions involving his use of military aircraft for short trips within the United States. A 2017 report by the Treasury Inspector General found that his flights on military aircraft during a seven-month period in 2017 cost more than $800,000. That same year, Mr. Mnuchin inquired about using military aircraft for his honeymoon, saying he needed a secure connection during the flight. Mr. Mnuchin ultimately withdrew the request.
Air travel decisions have dogged several Trump administration officials. Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s former secretary of Health and Human Services, was fired after it emerged that he had taken dozens of flights on private charter planes at the expense of taxpayers, costing more than $300,000.
In 2017, Eli Miller, Mr. Mnuchin’s chief of staff, drew criticism for flying to Palm Beach on the private plane of Nelson Peltz, the hedge fund billionaire. Treasury’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the trip and found that Mr. Miller did nothing illegal. However, Rich Delmar, counsel to the Treasury inspector general, wrote in a report that it was not necessarily a good idea for officials to embark on such lavish travel.
“Mr. Miller’s acceptance of the aircraft ride does not appear to have violated applicable law and regulation,” Mr. Delmar wrote. “Nonetheless, in an environment of high attention to relationships affecting governmental actions, consideration might well be given to another provision in the gift regulation.”
The provision he pointed to says, “It is never inappropriate and frequently prudent for an employee to decline a gift if acceptance would cause a reasonable person to question the employee’s integrity or impartiality.”
Richard Painter, the former chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush, said that federal ethics regulations offer substantial leeway for officials to accept gifts from friends. Despite the longstanding friendship between Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Milken, he thought the decision to fly on his private plane was questionable, even if the secretary paid for his seat or part of the total cost of the flight.
“The appearance of a Treasury secretary sitting on a private plane belonging to someone who is convicted of a felony securities fraud, it’s just atrocious, regardless of who paid for the plane,” Mr. Painter said.
Mr. Mnuchin has not been shy about his relationship with Mr. Milken. Last year he was a speaker at the Milken Institute’s annual conference, and he spoke at an event that Mr. Milken sponsored in the Hamptons in August.
At that event, according to a Bloomberg News report, Mr. Mnuchin described Mr. Milken as “beyond remarkable”.