- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Federal officials have no qualms flying the friendly skies in style, regularly using executive jets and other planes in the government’s fleet of 1,700 aircraft for everyday travel. But they often don’t track how much such trips cost or the reasons why they skipped cheaper commercial flights in favor of firing up one of Uncle Sam’s aircraft.

And lawmakers in Congress — usually charged with overseeing or reining in such expenditures — have their own addiction to luxury travel with a growing tendency to fly first class.

Those findings by two separate watchdogs in Congress are the latest examples of a culture of entitlement that pervades federal spending, even in an era of supposed cutbacks and bulging budget deficits, critics warn.

“Secrecy of personal trips taken at taxpayer expense only serves to create a distrust of the federal government,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a frequent advocate of greater transparency and austerity in government.

Mr. Grassley requested the latest report by the Government Accountability Office after it was revealed last year that top federal officials — including then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — frequently used an FBI executive jet purchased specifically for sensitive counterterrorism operations instead for routine travel. At least 395 of the trips aboard FBI aircraft were for personal travel, officials acknowledged.

Now the GAO, the auditing arm of Congress, reported to Mr. Grassley that the General Services Administration, which oversees the government’s air fleet, hasn’t been keeping track of what government planes are being used for and has largely ignored some flights undertaken by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, often for personal reasons.

Mr. Grassley said the failure to track costs and justifications is unacceptable.

“The GAO identified a significant gap that needs to be addressed to ensure transparency and verify that federal agencies are following current regulations,” he told The Washington Times. “Transparency brings accountability and may just save the taxpayers some money.”

The investigative site the Washington Guardian first reported last year that top federal officials’ “nonmission” flights aboard FBI and other aircraft cost taxpayers an estimated $11 million from 2009 to 2011. At one point, a personal trip by Mr. Holder left the FBI without access to a plane in the midst of a counterterrorism operation, leaving agents to scramble to charter a private jet.

The newest report from the GAO, obtained by The Times, found that little has changed: There are large gaps in the GSA’s records of flights and no one is tracking when planes are used for personal trips by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, even when such trips are unclassified. The GAO concluded that the failure to collect such data violates government transparency requirements.

“GSA exempted intelligence agencies from reporting any information on senior federal travel on government aircraft regardless of whether it is classified or unclassified,” the report said. “This is inconsistent with executive branch requirements we identified. GSA has not articulated a basis — specifically, a source of authority or rationale — that would allow it to deviate from collecting what it has been directed to collect by the President and OMB.”

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it’s one more example of intelligence and law enforcement agencies thinking they can get special treatment.

“It seems like for some unknown reason GSA is giving the intelligence community a pass,” she said. “It seems like every administration wants to give the intelligence community a pass, no matter what they’re doing.”

The GSA said it would re-evaluate the guidelines surrounding what qualifies as classified travel information and would remove some of the wording from their regulations that is allowing agencies to skirt reporting on flights.

“Collecting complete information provides an important and useful tool to agencies for data-driven management and decision-making and increases transparency,” a response from the management office said. “GSA hopes to provide clearer guidance to the agencies on its reporting requirements related to aircraft and travel, and ultimately, to improve the accuracy of reporting to GSA.”

Mr. Grassley said all federal travel needs to be tracked, regardless of the agency.

“The intelligence agencies need to be held accountable,” he said.

Ms. Sloan agreed, saying that “when things are done in secret, it’s easier for there to be abuses. There’s no oversight or control.”

The lack of transparency also violates a standing order from the Clinton administration that “all use of Government aircraft by senior executive branch officials shall be documented and such documentation shall be disclosed to the public upon request unless classified.”

Part of the problem revolves around Executive Order 12333, which requires the federal bureaucracy to protect sensitive information. In 2002, the GSA started allowing agencies to not report airline travel for classified reasons.

But investigators said there is no explanation as to why the GSA included the rule and little reason why the travel of federal officials should be considered classified, adding that the GSA has instead allowed agencies to use the rule to not report large swaths of travel information.

“GSA has not articulated how an exemption for senior federal official travel data for nonmission purposes is necessary for agencies to comply with Executive Order 12333,” inspectors said.

Classified personal trips are the latest in a long line of abuses by the government’s intelligence-gathering apparatus, Ms. Sloan said, which have included recent cases of spying on citizens and reports of spying on Congress.

“Really, there’s been so little attempts by anyone to rein in the intelligence community that the GSA just got scared off,” she said. “As soon as anybody starts talking about intelligence, other government agencies and Congress just get scared because nobody wants to be seen as interfering with the intelligence of the United States. They’ve been given way too wide a berth for way too long.”

Investigators said the GSA doesn’t even record which agencies are claiming the exemption, meaning departments are not using classified data status on trip records. That was part of the reason the GSA oversight was so poor that the FBI stopped reporting travel information altogether in 2009 and was never caught until after the Justice Department personnel had taken millions of dollars in personal trips.

The information on flights is needed for “aiding in the oversight of the use of government aircraft and helping to ensure that government aircraft are not used for nongovernmental purposes,” the report said.

Meanwhile, several lawmakers are starting to look into government travel on commercial flights, such as the ones lawmakers use to fly back and forth from their home districts.

Reps. Paul A. Gosar, Arizona Republican; Raul Ruiz, California Democrat; and Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday advocating for changes to federal law that allows lawmakers to buy first-class plane tickets with taxpayer funds, sometimes at a cost of a couple of thousand dollars apiece.

“We in Congress have a responsibility to wisely use the American people’s money,” said Mr. Jones. “Representatives should never secure their own luxury travel at taxpayer expense, but they especially should not do so when our nation is buried in $17 trillion of debt.”

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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