- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2010

Citing the distractions of home life, Amtrak spent tens of thousands of dollars on hotel rooms and meals for 10 employees attending classes for train directors in Chicago — despite the fact each of the employees already lived and worked in the Chicago area.

One official said the $75,627 spent through the summer of 2008 was required to “avoid the stress and personal distraction that being at home can create,” an explanation that Amtrak’s office of inspector general didn’t buy.

Investigators also found Amtrak paid for hotel rooms on weekends and that rooms sometimes were left unoccupied for nights at a time, according an inspector general’s investigation into the expenditures. A report on the investigation was recently obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

“It’s hard to believe that any extenuating circumstances could justify these outlays, especially since some employees apparently preferred the stress and distraction of going home instead of staying in hotel rooms,” said Pete Sepp, vice president of policy for the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union.

An Amtrak spokeswoman said the official policy is not to pay for hotels for employees who live in the area where training is being held.

“Management has directed staff that lodging for training classes at the normal work location for those employees should not be provided unless extenuating circumstances,” said Karina Romero, Amtrak spokeswoman.

Despite the hotel bills, some employees couldn’t stay away from home.

Amtrak also paid more than $13,000 in hotel bills for 119 nights during which employees weren’t at their hotel, leaving the rooms unoccupied, according to the records.

The inspector general’s office redacted from its final report the names of the employees involved in the expenditures, citing privacy reasons. The name of the hotel also was withheld from the report.

According to the report, one official said he did not object to the inspector general’s finding that deemed “insufficient” the explanation that staying at home was too distracting.

The report also said the unidentified official has since directed his staff “not to allow employees who normally commute to a training session to be provided overnight lodging, except for extremely rare circumstances.”

Train directors, with jobs paying between $20.45 and $27.27 per hour according to one recent ad, handle the movement of trains and on-track equipment, including the operation of switches and signals.