Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants answers about whether Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other senior Justice Department officials misused FBI aircraft, hindering the agency's investigations and ignoring a White House order to cut travel costs.
Like a few senior administration officials with high-profile roles, Mr. Holder is required for security reasons to use government aircraft when he travels.
But Mr. Grassley said he has received complaints that Mr. Holder has abused the privilege, using FBI planes for travel when aircraft were needed for FBI missions and, in at least one instance, reserving an FBI plane and leaving it idling on the tarmac when he upgraded to a larger aircraft without telling the agency.
According to Mr. Grassley's account of the allegations, the travel by Mr. Holder and other senior department officials is so frequent that the FBI is considering leasing a private plane to conduct FBI investigative work.
Mr. Grassley, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, and Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, wrote a letter on Aug. 23 to FBI Director Robert Mueller asking for specific information about the use of agency aircraft by Mr. Holder and other officials in the Obama administration.
"It is our understanding that the FBI pays for the Attorney General's travel despite the fact that he has his own travel budget," the letter says.
"Despite your assurances that investigative operations receive priority, we are concerned that FBI aircraft are used for extraneous business and personal travel by senior [Justice Department] officials, including the attorney general," the lawmakers wrote.
FBI officials said they were reviewing the letter.
Last year, The Washington Times reported that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was commuting home each weekend to Monterey, Calif., on a military jet and reimbursing the government for a fraction of the cost.
Mr. Panetta has since apologized for the practice.
In their letter, Mr. Grassley and other members of the Judiciary Committee raised concerns about the allegations of Mr. Holder's use of the FBI's jet after reading about Mr. Panetta's $870,000 price tag for his personal travel.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in May, Mr. Grassley asked Mr. Mueller about the Attorney General's travel on FBI aircraft.
At the time, Mr. Mueller said any "travel of the principals is secondary to use of the plane for the investigative work of the FBI" and that Mr. Holder understood the priority.
In 2008, use of government jets for personal travel by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, appointed by President George W. Bush, came under scrutiny. McClatchy reported that Mr. Mukasey took so many trips to his home in New York on FAA, FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration planes that he was outside Washington a third of his time during a five-month period and traveled to New York 45 times in an 11-month period.
Justice Department officials at the time defended Mr. Mukasey's personal travel, arguing that he had no choice but to fly on a government plane to see his family because of security reasons.
Mr. Holder's and Mr. Panetta's travel situation is drawing more scrutiny, particularly after President Obama last year ordered all Cabinet agencies to cut back on expenses, singling out travel as an area ripe for savings.
In May, after fallout over a lavish General Services Administration conference cost top officials at the agency their jobs, the Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to cut travel costs by 30 percent, but agencies can get exemptions if certain types of travel are related to national security.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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