- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

From an extra day’s hotel stay so military officials can fit in a round of golf to federal workers who fly business class instead of coach, questionable travel expenditures have remained a persistent problem across the federal government in recent years.

At the State Department, for instance, nearly 80 percent of the more than $300,000 in airfare reviewed at one little-known office in fiscal 2007 and 2008 went to pay for business-class airline tickets, and many of those purchases violated federal travel policy.

One senior manager at the National Science Foundation took or extended taxpayer-funded trips totaling more than $10,000 to facilitate liaisons with women in Paris, Tokyo and Vancouver.

And a former deputy secretary at the Pentagon repaid more than $17,000 after investigators said he extended official travel for personal reasons on more than a dozen trips, a finding the former official said he strongly denies.

The Washington Times obtained information about these and dozens of other internal travel-related investigations through Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies across government, as well as a review of public reports, audits and court records.

Even after a 2007 congressional probe uncovered millions of dollars in wasteful travel, lawmakers and the public do not know the full extent of the problem because of a lack of “timely and comprehensive information” about travel, according to an analysis last year by the Congressional Research Service.

“Agencies have rules on the books, but the rules are only as good as their enforcement,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who recently sponsored a bill to enact tighter controls on government airline ticket purchasing practices.

Watchdog groups that monitor federal spending say wasteful travel undercuts public confidence in government, especially at a time when recession-weary Americans are struggling to stay employed or find a job.

“The frequency and excessive costs of these trips reflect the governmentwide ethos that it isn’t their money, so they don’t need to exercise any prudence when spending it,” said Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste.

“And these are the kinds of issues that feed the anger and resentment that people are feeling toward a government gone out of control,” she said.

New travel, same problem

In 1901, the New York Times reported on a widespread “systematic robbing” by Chicago law enforcement officers filing phony travel claims on out-of-town trips: “New York is a favorite trip for several reasons - because it is 1,000 miles long and because the policeman has a chance to work in a great many ‘extras’ … not to mention the fun the officer has.”

A few years later, the House voted to impeach U.S. District Judge Charles Swayne in Florida for, among other reasons, filing phony travel vouchers and using a railroad car owned by a company in receivership in the judge’s court.

Now, more than century later, while jets have replaced locomotives, the sort of waste and fraud in government travel remains largely unchanged. Some employees still pad legitimate travel expenses, get the government to pay for “extras” or make taxpayers pick up the tab for out-of-town trips that never took place.

For most of 2008, for example, Derrick Hampton, a legal technician in the Treasury Department’s office of the comptroller of currency, entered claims into the department’s computerized travel reimbursement system. The problem was, Hampton didn’t travel out of town on any official business, officials later said. And he wasn’t authorized to input travel claims.

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