- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2010

Some of the nation’s top federal prosecutors — including a former U.S. attorney now serving as governor of New Jersey — have been skirting travel regulations, opting for accommodations well above the government’s budget with little or no justification, the Justice Department’s inspector general says.

A report issued Monday by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said Republican Gov. Chris Christie, not identified by name but only as “U.S. Attorney C,” most often exceeded government rates for travel spending without adequate justification during a review period from 2007-2009.

Investigators focused on the cases of five U.S. attorneys — also not identified by name but similarly assigned letters — who “exhibited a noteworthy pattern of exceeding the government rate without appropriate justification.”

The IG’s report says “U.S. Attorney C” booked a room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington at a cost of $475 per night — more than double the government rate of $233 per night for the District. He told investigators he chose the room because the hotel was the site of an early-morning speech he was scheduled to deliver — a justification the inspector general rejected as inadequate.

The report said U.S. Attorney C also booked a room at Nine Zero Hotel in Boston at a cost of $449 per night — again double the government rate in Boston of $220 per night. Investigators noted that during the Boston trip, he also spent $236 for a car service to chauffeur him the four miles to and from the airport.

Mr. Christie’s travel became an issue in last year’s New Jersey gubernatorial campaign after the Justice Department released records similar to those detailed by the inspector general under a Freedom of Information request.

His press secretary, Michael Drewniak, told Associated Press on Monday that “the governor thoroughly addressed this issue during the campaign, and I would refer you to his remarks then.”

While Mr. Christie campaigned for the governor’s office promising ethical integrity and to cut government waste, the Justice Department documents show he regularly spent beyond federal guidelines on business travel as U.S. attorney.

The records show that he billed taxpayers more than $400 a night for stays in luxury hotels and exceeded the government’s hotel allowance on 14 of 16 business trips he took in 2008.

While on the campaign trail, Mr. Christie defended the expenditures as ones made only when cheaper hotels were not available, Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz noted at the time that “the government rate is not a suggestion, it’s a guideline.”

The IG’s report noted that the majority of the 208 people who served in one of the country’s 93 U.S. attorney positions from 2007 to 2009 complied with regulations. It also said that during the review period, U.S. attorneys “claimed reimbursement for lodging above the government rate for 20 percent of their overnight travel.”

In many cases, it said, the U.S. attorney doing the traveling or a subordinate approved the expenses. Often when a U.S. attorney exceeded the government rate, no reason was provided.

The report said 19 U.S. attorneys exceeded government rates on 11 or more trips, accounting for more than 40 percent of all such violations.

Another prosecutor, U.S. Attorney D, attended conferences in San Diego, Fort Lauderdale and Anaheim, Calif. However, in each case, the public official stayed at taxpayer expense at a hotel other than the one hosting the conference and each time at greater cost.

For example, instead of staying at the hotel hosting the Anaheim conference for $143 per night, U.S. Attorney D stayed at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, a AAA five-diamond hotel approximately 20 miles from Anaheim, for $349 per night.

Memos he provided to justify the more expensive hotels said conference-rate rooms at the hotels hosting the conferences were sold out.

U.S. Attorney D also attended a conference at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, Calif., and stayed at the resort, but at a $219 room rate — higher than the $159 conference rate.

U.S. Attorney D’s secretary told investigators her boss instructed her to book the pricier accommodations “in order to have a room with a better view.”

“She said that the U.S. attorney told her to write that the conferences were ‘sold out’ in order to justify his decision to stay at a preferred hotel,” the report said.

U.S. Attorney D told investigators his secretary was responsible for each of the hotel rooms in excess of the government rate, “and that if she said otherwise, it was to cover for her own misconduct,” the report said.

In another case, U.S. Attorney B, traveling to a resort for a conference in Tucson, Ariz., scheduled to run from Sunday to Wednesday actually stayed at the resort from Friday to Monday. While costs for all the nights exceeded the government travel rate, the $179 Saturday night stay was nearly double the $93 the government allows for hotel stays in Tucson.

That U.S. attorney declined to be interviewed by investigators. In an e-mail response, she told the inspector general she expected her hotel costs to be reimbursed by a third party and thought the government rate lodging was not a concern of hers.

“She also argued that her secretary was responsible for third-party reimbursements and that she should not be held responsible for her secretary’s failures,” the report said.

The report also detailed a number of individual cases, including one unidentified prosecutor who charged the government for weekend travel to a satellite office that coincided with the times and location of his son’s baseball tournaments.

The government rate, which is determined by the General Services Administration (GSA), varies depending on the travel location. Employees may book rooms up to three times the government rate if the hotel is the location of a prearranged meeting or conference, if lodging costs are inflated because of unrelated special events going on at the same time, because of a broad and vague “mission requirements” clause usually related to security, or for other reasons approved within the agency of the employee doing the traveling.

The inspector general report said that a little more than half of the trips that exceeded the government rate were justified by one of the exceptions.

The report also faulted the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA), which serves as a liaison with the Justice Department and is supposed to approve out-of-district travel, for failing to provide proper oversight.

The inspector general recommended clarifying who can authorize travel expenses and the steps that must be taken to find government travel rates, strengthening requirements for documentation and simplifying travel policies.

EOUSA Director H. Marshall Jarrett said in response to the inspector general’s findings that his office had implemented improved controls over travel and a dedicated travel unit had begun reviewing and approving travel authorizations and vouchers.

“As a result, controls over the United States Attorney travel approval process have significantly improved,” he said.