October 3, 2007 in Nation/World

GAO finds premium-class travel abuse

Hope Yen Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – 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, 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.

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 that agencies did little to check their abuses.

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.

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