Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Congressional auditors are accusing the State Department of wasting “tens of millions of dollars” a year on business-class airline travel.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a report released Monday, said two-thirds of “premium” tickets that the department purchased between April 2003 and September 2004 — most of them business-class tickets — were not “properly authorized, justified or both.”

“Improper premium-class travel represents a waste of tax dollars,” according to the report.

Premium is defined as anything higher than economy class.

The State Department yesterday disputed the report’s findings but said it would implement the auditors’ recommendations.

According to the GAO report, titled “Internal control breakdowns and ineffective oversight lost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” the department also paid about $6 million for tickets that were not used.

“We found that State purchased two identical tickets costing over $16,000 for the same business and first-class travel between Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Albuquerque, N.M., and one set of tickets valued at over $8,000 was wasted and never used,” the report said.

During the period in question, the agency purchased more than 32,000 premium tickets costing nearly $140 million, according to the report. That represents about 19 percent of all tickets but almost half of the $286 million spent on tickets.

The State Department said yesterday that the report “overstates the nature and extent of the problem,” and that “a number of key assertions” in it “are misleading.”

“Notwithstanding our concerns about some aspects of the GAO study, we acknowledge and are resolute in our commitment to remedy the deficiencies GAO noted in the recommendations,” the department said.

Without naming officials, the report said the department “spent over $1 million on premium-class flights for 17 senior executives during most of fiscal years 2003 and 2004.”

“Our analysis indicated that most of these flights were domestic or to destinations in Western Europe or South America and did not last more than the 14 hours required by federal and state regulations to justify use of premium-class travel,” the report said.

“Further, many of the executives used blanket travel orders signed by subordinates to justify purchasing premium-class travel,” it said.

In another example of “improper authorization by subordinates of executive premium-class travel,” the report said a “presidential appointee” bought 45 tickets during the period at issue and spent $213,000, or $4,733 per ticket on average.

A member of the “senior executive service” purchased 26 tickets for a total of $104,000.

The State Department said it has “revised” its policy “to clarify that premium-class travel must be approved by the employee’s supervisor or an appropriate official outside the chain of command.”

Another example in the report was a family of four that flew from Washington to Moscow for “post-assignment travel.”

“The business-class tickets cost $6,712 ($1,678 each) and the flight lasted about 12 hours,” according to the report. “The cost of coach-class tickets — the form of travel required by travel regulations — would have been $1,784 ($446 each), or $4,928 less than the amount actually spent.”

The State Department said it “has taken action and followed GAO’s recommendations to strengthen our internal controls for purchasing tickets, ensuring proper documentation is submitted and managing unused tickets.”

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