WASHINGTON - Federal employees wasted at least $146 million over a one-year period on business- or first-class airline tickets bought in violation of travel policies, congressional investigators say.
A draft report by the Government Accountability Office, obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, is the first to examine travel abuse in the federal government following reports of extensive misuse 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 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 the flight time did not exceed 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 saved the government $169,000.
Nine Justice Department employees charged the agency $35,000 for premium-class air tickets to Frankfurt, asserting that 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 said it was referring all the cases it found 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.