U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary defends her department against budget-cutting proposals by portraying herself as a master economizer in government - reducing her work force, boosting efficiency and saving money.
But when she hits the road in her job, as she often does, O’Leary is no bargain hunter.
Traveling in a style that is unusual, if not unique, among her Cabinet colleagues, O’Leary is the jet-setter of the Clinton administration.
On longer trips, the former corporate executive frequently upgrades her airline flights to business class or first class - and sometimes authorizes staff members accompanying her to do so as well. And she stays at expensive hotels, in contrast to more cost-conscious fellow Cabinet members.
The travel habits are apparent on the bills for all trips, other than flights on military or Energy Department aircraft, that she submits to the government. For her first two years on the job, the median cost for O’Leary’s 61 domestic official trips was 58 percent higher than it was for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner’s trips, 73 percent higher than for travel by Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros and 90 percent higher than Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala’s trips, according to travel documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
In a written response to questions, O’Leary said her travel costs and practices are entirely appropriate and that, in fact, she had spent nearly $14,500 of her own money on official travel. On most domestic flights, she upgrades to business class at no cost to the government, even though she is on duty 24 hours a day and does considerable work en route, a spokeswoman said.
“She is responsible for supervising a nationwide network of sites, many of which are former nuclear weapons facilities located in remote areas of the Western United States, where transportation is sometimes time-consuming and expensive,” said press secretary Barbara Semedo.
Two practices in particular put O’Leary at the top of the travel-expense list. The government has ceilings on the amount it will repay officials for meals and accommodations but, citing special circumstances, O’Leary routinely seeks hotel reimbursement at as much as 150 percent of the maximum level. Other Cabinet members usually find lodging for considerably less.
And most other agency heads rarely, if ever, upgrade from coach class on commercial flights.
O’Leary’s overseas travel tends to be expensive as well. One trip to London cost taxpayers $26,814 for O’Leary and seven aides who joined her for an oil and money conference involving international government leaders and energy executives.
O’Leary, 58, a lawyer, oversees a $17.5 billion agency and one of the largest federal bureaucracies, with 17,000 federal employees and another 140,000 who work for the government through contracts with private companies. Its responsibilities include cleaning up thousands of sites that were radioactively contaminated.
An extensive review by the Los Angeles Times of the travel itineraries and vouchers of eight senior Clinton officials found that O’Leary’s travel habits stood out. The median cost for her trips, which means that half her trips cost more and half less, was $671.
Among those surveyed, only Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown recorded similar costs. His traveling style is not comparable to O’Leary’s but he tends to take longer trips.
The figures of O’Leary and her counterparts appear low, in part because they include inexpensive trips, some of which involved only ground transportation and no overnight stays. In other cases, political campaign committees picked up some of the tab if the trip entailed a political appearance.
Moreover, government officials can be reimbursed no more than a certain amount for meals and lodging, with those maximums determined on a city-by-city basis. In addition, hotel and airlines often offer discount rates to government workers.
Overall, O’Leary spent a total of $49,857 on domestic trips, a figure that does not include travel by aides.
That amount was $11,088 less than Cisneros’ cumulative cost, although he took nearly twice as many trips. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich took only three fewer trips than O’Leary but charged taxpayers slightly more than half as much.
The seven times that O’Leary upgraded to business class or first class at public expense were generally on overseas or cross-country trips. She cited on her travel vouchers that she needed to do so to perform work during the flight, to arrive at her destination fresh enough to conduct business and because of periodic back spasms. Federal travel regulations require such justifications for flying via any class other than coach.
On other trips, Semedo said O’Leary upgraded by using frequentflyer miles accumulated before she came to the Energy Department or by paying the difference herself.
The spokeswoman said O’Leary considers it cost-effective for aides to upgrade so they can work with her in flight. Unless necessary, just a single seat is upgraded, with staff members moving back and forth from coach to consult with the secretary.
But the practice can multiply the cost. During an October 1993 flight from Chicago to London, three staff members upgraded to business class with O’Leary. The additional charge to the government for the secretary was $3,198; and the added amount for the three aides was $7,067.