- 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.

It wasn’t until Hampton had received about $25,000 for trips he never took that the scam unraveled, authorities said. He pleaded guilty last year in federal court in Washington to theft.

In other cases, employees targeted in travel investigations managed to avoid getting hauled into court and kept their jobs.

At the National Science Foundation (NSF), one senior manager extended trips and initiated travel “to facilitate his relationships with female companions, one of whom is an NSF employee,” according to an internal inspector general’s memo on the case. The trips included meetings in faraway destinations such as Tokyo, Vancouver and Paris.

When asked by investigators whether it was appropriate to consider a woman’s presence in Vancouver when deciding whether to speak at workshop there, documents show the official responded, “Yeah, why not?”

For a trip to San Diego, the official was supposed to attend an event on a Sunday evening but arrived a day earlier. In e-mails later obtained by investigators, the official wrote to a woman he planned to see in the city: “Ordinarily I would fly out Sunday …. [M]y site visit in San Diego begins on Sunday 29th in late afternoon. … I should be able to fly out a day earlier. … If you want to come down that evening, stay over and spend the morning by the ocean, we can make that work.”

The NSF official, whose name was redacted in reports obtained by The Times, remains employed at the foundation.

A spokeswoman for the foundation said that as a result of the investigation, the official was removed from a division director position and assigned to a non-supervisory job in April 2008.

At the same time, the NSF rescinded preliminary approval for him to receive a presidential rank award, which would have been worth more than $33,000 if awarded.

NSF spokeswoman Lisa-Joy Zgorski said neither the NSF nor the Office of Personnel Management had previously announced that the official had been approved to receive the award, and he did not receive the honor. In addition, she said, the official was ranked “minimally satisfactory” and received no bonus or pay raise for 2008.

Premium class

The aim of the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs is to promote diplomacy on issues such as infectious diseases, space exploration and climate change around the world. But for much of 2007 and 2008, the office executives jetting around the world on important missions did so in style.

A State Department inspector general report released in December, after an open records request by The Times for the document, found that of $311,154 in travel expenses reviewed at the bureau, more than 80 percent represented business-class travel purchases.

Some of the trips weren’t long enough to justify flying business class, while other trips lacked the paperwork or proper authorizations for upgrades from coach, according to the report.

“The bureau’s management took seriously the observations of the office of inspector general and immediately took a number of steps to address the concerns,” State Department spokeswoman Laura Tischler said.

Under new management, the bureau’s tightened travel restrictions include more training and reforms requiring that all business-class travel requests be approved by high-ranking officials at the executive director level and above. And employees, regardless of rank, now must complete an authorization form to “demonstrate that the travel clearly meets the criteria for business-class accommodations,” Ms. Tischler said.

Employees flying premium class instead of coach is hardly a new problem in federal government.

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office found at least $146 million wasted because employees weren’t flying coach. One executive flew from Washington to Switzerland at a cost of $7,500, compared with $900 for coach. The General Services Administration last year published rules enacting recommendations in the GAO report.

“Travel is one of those issues that has a disproportionate impact on public confidence in government because taxpayers can relate to the costs more directly,” said Pete Sepp, vice president of policy for the National Taxpayers Union.

“Most folks have traveled by air, and they know what it’s like to have to shop for bargain fares,” he said. “Most who wind up in business class consider themselves pretty fortunate, and can get in trouble with the boss if they overuse the privilege.”

Discount fares

Investigators at the GSA’s inspector general office in 2006 spent months reviewing the finances of a now-defunct travel agency in Virginia called Four Directions Travel. They found the company routinely bought discount airfares for which only government workers on official travel qualify, then used those same tickets for nongovernmental customers, records show.

The investigation concluded that airlines had lost more than $1.2 million as result, including more than $500,000 in losses at American Airlines alone.

Internal memos also show that when the GSA’s inspector general presented the case to prosecutors, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to file charges. Among the reasons, the office cited “the high number of cases and limited number of assistant United States Attorneys,” according to memos.

The company eventually closed and was debarred from competing for federal contracts in 2007 for two years. Its phone number disconnected, the company could not be reached for comment, and phone calls to its attorney were not returned.

Hitting the links, slopes

On Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006, Christopher Ryan Henry, then one Pentagon’s highest-ranking officials, checked into the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort in Colorado and spent parts of two days skiing before visiting Buckley Air Force Base on Monday for a tour.

Years later, that trip and several others would surface as the Pentagon’s inspector general investigated whether Mr. Henry, the former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, had been arranging or extending official travel for personal reasons, according to a report obtained by The Times last year.

On the Colorado trip, for example, investigators concluded that during four days of travel claimed as official, Mr. Henry conducted only one day of official business on the trip. Investigators also found that 21 trips by Mr. Henry “had some personal or leisure component attached to them,” according to the report.

Mr. Henry ultimately repaid more than $17,000, but he disputes any wrongdoing.

“I strongly disagree with the IG’s processes, findings and conclusions as they were presented to me,” he said in an e-mail, adding that his decision to reimburse the money was voluntary.

Mr. Henry provided The Times with a letter he received after the investigation from Eric S. Edelman, former undersecretary of defense for policy. The letter stated that “to some extent this situation occurred in the context of an unclear and inadequate policy regarding travel” under the Pentagon’s Continuity of Operations Program, or COOP.

The inspector general’s report said COOP is a classified program containing procedures to respond to a national emergency by assigning certain duties to senior Pentagon officials on a rotating basis.

In 2007, Pentagon inspectors also raised questions about the expenses of four other senior military officials and six others at a conference in Japan “while not performing official duties,” according to a report.

The officials’ stay was extended by one day after the conference so they could attend an all-day golf event about 18 miles outside of Tokyo.

One official later told investigators that he “has found the golf productive in terms of conversation going back and forth, the communication and to provide a team-building opportunity.”

Pentagon investigators didn’t buy the argument, according to records. In the end, they questioned about $3,000 in lodging and transportation costs from the extra day’s stay and golf outing.

Overall, a GAO report released in 2007 estimated that the Pentagon had paid out about $8 million in improper travel payments, accounting for about 1 percent of more than $8 billion in reported travel payments the previous year. A previous GAO report raised questions about the high cost of premium-class travel at the Department of Defense, a practice officials have said they’ve since addressed.

“The department, as stewards of tax dollars, is constantly looking at ways to enhance management oversight over government travel, and has strict policies and procedures in place to prohibit fraud or abuse,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.

She said the Pentagon is vigilant about ensuring money isn’t wasted by personnel taking premium-class flights, a recurring problem over the years throughout government.

“Out of almost 3.7 million trips taken by the DOD in fiscal 2008, only 274 (less than .01 percent) were booked as first class, and greater than 80 percent of those ‘first class’ tickets cost equal to or less than coach fares,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

Not all questionable travel is by air.

At the Department of Homeland Security, the inspector general investigated two federal air marshals who carpooled together, but then separately filed claims seeking mileage reimbursements, records show.

The NSF suspended one employee for five days after she used her government travel card 21 times in five weeks to make cash withdrawals, buy gas and groceries and make a cell-phone payment.

The State Department in 2008 suspended an employee for 30 days for selling government transit subsidies outside of a subway stop in Washington, later claiming the fares were “government perks.”

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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