Saturday, October 27, 2007

FEMA Stages Press Conferences; Employees impersonate news reporters

By Devlin Barrett
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (Oct. 27) - The homeland security chief on Saturday lashed into his own employees for staging a phony news conference at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government," Michael Chertoff said.

"I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment," he added.

Asked specifically if he planned to fire anyone at FEMA, which is part of his department, Chertoff declined to say, citing personnel rules.

"There will be appropriate discipline," he told reporters at a news conference with New York's governor where they announced an agreement on a driver's license plan.

Chertoff said he knew nothing about the matter until after it happened and that he "can't explain why it happened."

The White House on Friday scolded FEMA for the faux press conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California.

The agency - much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago - arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of reporters at the event Tuesday and question Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy director.

The questions were soft and gratuitous.

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response," Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee.

FEMA gave reporters only 15 minutes notice about Tuesday's news conference. But because of the short notice, the agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in. Many did, although it was a listen-only arrangement.

Johnson said in a statement Friday that FEMA's goal was "to get information out as soon as possible and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment."

"Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received," he said. "We can and must do better."

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

GAO: U.S. Defense and State Departments Squalor Taxpayers' Dollars 10x Above Authorized Limits; "They felt entitled to the perk"

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal employees wasted at least $146 million over a one-year period on business- and first-class airline tickets, in some cases simply because they felt entitled to the perk, congressional investigators say.


A draft report by the Government Accountability Office, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, is the first to examine compliance with travel rules across the federal government following reports of extensive abuse of premium-class travel by Pentagon and State Department employees.

The review of travel spending by more than a dozen agencies from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006, found 67 percent of premium-class travel by executives or their employees, worth at least $146 million, was unauthorized or otherwise unjustified.

Among the worst offenders: the State Department, whose employees typically fly abroad on official business.

Many of the cases involved high-ranking senior officials or political appointees who claimed exceptions to federal travel rules by citing old medical records or questionable approval from a subordinate employee.

Investigators found that senior officials often flew business- or first-class because they felt entitled to the perk.

The higher airfare for traveling in one of the premium classes resulted in expenses often five to 10 times more than what was authorized under government travel rules.

"With the serious fiscal challenges facing the federal government, agencies must maximize their ability to manage and safeguard valuable taxpayers' dollars," investigators wrote, suggesting agencies recoup the extra cost from those who abuse travel policies.

Under federal rules, government employees generally must fly coach for both domestic and international travel unless the flight takes 14 hours or longer. A few exceptions apply when the employee receives agency approval based on a medical condition, security concerns, lack of availability of coach seats or when required "because of agency mission."

Government investigators found that employees openly flouted the rules and agencies did little to check their abuses. Among the waste cited:

An Agriculture Department executive took 25 premium-class flights costing $163,000 and said the extra expense had been authorized by a subordinate. In 10 of those trips, the traveler claimed exceptional circumstances to justify the pricier travel to western Europe, even though agency policy forbids premium-class travel unless the flight time is longer than 14 hours.

Thirty-two State Department employees flew from Washington to Liberia in premium class over a six-month period. Five of those travelers did not have authorization for premium class; three had duplicate tickets and no evidence that the duplicates were refunded; and 17 were not properly justified, as their trips did not meet the 14-hour rule. These flights cost $293,000 and comparable coach-class tickets would have cost $124,000 - a difference of $169,000.

At the Pentagon, a political appointee took 15 premium-class flights and cited a medical condition as justification for the $105,000 in expenses. However, the only evidence of a medical condition was a note signed by a fellow Pentagon employee, not a physician, attesting to surgery from several years earlier. The Pentagon did not have a doctor's certification from the employee as required by agency policy.

Nine Justice Department employees charged the agency $35,000 for premium-class air tickets to Frankfurt, Germany, claiming the flight time was over 14 hours. Investigators found the employees added a separate flight to their calculations to reach the 14-hour total, a practice not allowed under government travel rules. Also, two of the flights were not authorized.

The GAO, Congress ' investigative and auditing arm, said it was referring all cases it found of improper and abusive travel to the respective agencies and inspector general's offices for possible administrative action and repayment of the difference between premium-class and coach-class travel.

The report comes as some lawmakers are pressing to strengthen government sunshine laws by requiring agency disclosure of business-class travel to Congress. Currently, business-class travel accounts for 96 percent of the premium travel claimed by federal employees.

"No one disputes the fact that government officials need to travel, as not all work can be done behind a desk. Nor should all premium-class travel be eliminated. But the rules are there for a reason and the federal government should enforce them," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Coleman noted that after a 2003 GAO report uncovered abuses in Pentagon travel, the department tightened policies and has since dramatically reduced its use of premium travel.

"We simply need the necessary oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are spent properly," he said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who is seeking to provide greater accountability in the use of government-issued credit cards, agreed.

"The federal employees who like to stretch their legs while they fly need to realize they've already stretched the taxpayer's purse by $146 million," he said. "Agencies need to be more responsible with their travel programs and employees who violate the policy should be held accountable."

The latest GAO report noted that several government entities are not subject to government rules on premium-class travel - among them, the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. - opening up more opportunities for unnecessary waste.

Those entities often allow members of their board of governors to travel business or first class for shorter flights overseas and sometimes domestically. In one case, a deputy director of FDIC flew business class from Washington to London and back at a cost of $7,200, while a coach- class ticket would have cost $800.

On the Net:

Government Accountability Office: www.gao.gov

Hugs Threaten 'Orderliness' at Middle School; Banned

Associated Press

OAK PARK, Ill. (Oct. 2) - If you need a hug, you won't get it at Percy Julian Middle School. Principal Victoria Sharts banned hugging among the suburban Chicago school's 860 students anywhere inside the building. She said students were forming "hug lines" that made them late for classes and crowded the hallways.

"Hugging is really more appropriate for airports or for family reunions than passing and seeing each other every few minutes in the halls," Sharts said.

Another reason to institute the no-hugging policy was that some hugs could be too long and too close, she said.

"There is another side to the issue when a hug is either unwanted or becomes inappropriate as judged by one of the students involved," Sharts wrote in a statement to parents. "On occasion, we do deal with those incidents. The goal is always to promote safe and orderly hallways where everybody can get by, be safe, and be on time."