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