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$100m flies out the window

Pentagon pays for unused tickets

WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department spent an estimated $100 million for airline tickets that were not used over a six-year period and failed to seek refunds even though the tickets were reimbursable, congressional investigators say.

The department compounded the problem by reimbursing employee claims for tickets bought by the Pentagon, the investigators said.

To demonstrate how easy it was to have the Pentagon pay for airline travel, the investigators posed as Defense employees, had the department generate a ticket, and showed up at the ticket counter to pick up a boarding pass. Congress's General Accounting Office issued the findings in two reports on the Pentagon's lack of control over airline travel, copies of which the Associated Press obtained yesterday. A prior report, issued last November, found that the Pentagon bought 68,000 first-class or business-class airline seats for employees who should have flown coach.

"At a time when our soldiers are patrolling the streets of Iraq in unarmored Humvees, and when the Bush administration is asking for record Defense spending, Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld is letting hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to protect our troops and our country go to waste," said Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, one of three lawmakers who ordered the studies.

The GAO estimated that between 1997 and 2003, the Defense Department bought at least $100 million in tickets that were not used or used only partially by a passenger who did not complete all legs of a flight. The waste went undetected because the department relied on individuals to report the unused tickets. They did not do so.

The Defense Department said that it is working to ensure it receives credit in the future for each unused ticket.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said, "It's outrageous that the Defense Department would be sending additional federal tax dollars to the airlines by way of unused passenger tickets. And the fact that the Defense Department didn't even know it was wasting this money is even worse than $100 million down a rathole."

While one GAO report focused on the unused tickets, the second investigation found potential fraud. It said the department paid travelers for tickets the department had already bought and reimbursed employees for tickets that had not been authorized.

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