Congressman presses federal agencies to answer for lapses in reporting luxury travel

Agencies failed to disclose trips dating to 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congressman Walter B. Jones (R- NC) is calling on three federal agencies to disclose their taxpayer-funded luxury travel expenses.

Federal regulations require executive branch agencies to report annually to the General Services Administration any upgraded business or first class air travel,  since those tickets often cost thousands of dollars more than coach fares.  

However, records released to Scripps News show dozens of federal agencies failed to file the disclosures -- in some cases for years.   

GSA’s annual reports on premium travel reflect the ticket upgrades of 75 agencies from fiscal years 2009 to 2013, and indicate that 54 failed to file reports at least once during that period.  

This week, Jones wrote letters to the inspectors general at three of the agencies that appeared to have more egregious problems when it comes to disclosing their upgrades:  The Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration, and NASA.

“The taxpayer has a right to know the cost of the trips,” Jones said. “When you have agencies that are so arrogant that they do not meet the law and the requirements to file the expenses, it is unacceptable.”

GSA records show the Small Business Administration has failed to file the required reports for the past five years. The SBA did not respond to requests for comment in March or a follow up request made this week.

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office took the Department of Agriculture to task after it found 140 of 145 upgraded trips it audited to be, “not properly authorized, justified, or both.”

More recent records show the Department failed to disclose any upgrades to the GSA for the four most recent fiscal years. The Department of Agriculture has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

NASA did not file a report in 2012. When asked about the missing report in early March, NASA officials said they were previously unaware of the problem but would complete a filing within a few weeks.

Three months later the agency, which had previously acknowledged widespread accounting errors in four other recent years of disclosures, has yet to publicly release the 2012 report. The space agency reported more than 1,000 upgrades over four fiscal years.

On a one-way trip flown by Administrator Charles Bolden and executive Michael O’Brien from Beijing to Washington D.C., NASA agreed to pay $16,515 for each business class ticket. The average coach fare cost just $958, according to NASA.  

The agency reported it additionally authorized more than 500 other taxpayer funded luxury upgrades costing above  $3,000 a piece, over just four fiscal years.   

In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill late last month that included language requiring NASA  to report back to Congress on how it will reduce spending on premium travel in fiscal year 2014 and beyond, while also filing corrected reports for its accounting errors over the last five fiscal years.

Wednesday afternoon, NASA spokesperson Karen Northon said, “NASA plans to complete the Fiscal Year 2012 premium travel report by the end of the month, and the agency intends to fully comply with the House language.”

Congressman Jones’ letters asked the inspectors general for the three agencies when they had last audited records of luxury upgrades, and when they would be reporting any undisclosed premium travel costs.

“Tax dollars pay for the travel of all federal agencies, and the government should spend that money wisely – especially at a time when our nation is over $17 trillion in debt,” he said.  “The luxury travel reporting requirement improves accountability and transparency and should be strictly followed.”

To read the letters Congressman Jones sent to the inspectors general, click here.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Mark.Greenblatt@scripps.com or via Twitter at @greenblattmark

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