Blank Check: Official Travel

D.C. Spends Robustly on Official Travel

By Dan Keating and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 30, 2005

The District spends $5.5 million a year on travel for its employees, far more than other cities, and often with minimal records to justify the expense.

A review of city travel documents over the past five years shows that officials have routinely authorized overseas travel and dispatched public servants in packs to attend week-long conferences in casinos and resorts. Employees have misused their official travel credit cards and failed to account for thousands of dollars in advances.

On average, the District spends about $220 per employee on out-of-town travel each year. That compares with about $40 per employee in Baltimore, $80 in San Francisco and $150 in Philadelphia and is also higher than the figures in Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and several other jurisdictions, according to a survey by The Washington Post.

Agency officials in the District defend the need to spend public money on travel, citing the benefits of training, the need to meet with government officials from other cities and the simple requirements of doing business. Federal grants often pay for city employees to go to conferences and training. And District employees handle city, county and state functions, they said.

But in at least one case, a city official decided that her agency could exist without travel. When Carol J. Mitten took over the Office of Property Management in 2003, the agency had spent $300,000 on travel over the previous two years. She discontinued travel credit cards and ended all trips.

"I'm just not a big fan of sending people to conferences," she said.

Many agency heads, however, do not share that view. The Department of Corrections, for example, authorized 25 employees to go to a six-day American Correctional Association conference in 2002. The list included a secretary, several staff assistants, a sheet-metal worker and several guards. The event promised keynote speaker Don Shula, the former Miami Dolphins football coach.

The department also has sent groups to conferences every year since.

Corrections officials defended the conference travel, saying it promotes "the best practices in the corrections industry," Interim Director S. Elwood York Jr. wrote in response to questions.

In late 2003, the Department of Health sent 39 employees to a five-day public health conference in San Francisco. The bill: $71,932.

"I don't have a problem with that," said Health Director Gregg A. Pane. "If anything, I think we don't do enough for our employees for professional development and training."

More than any other agency, the city's school system racks up travel expenses by sending clusters of employees to training and seminars. In 2003 and 2004, that agency averaged $60,000 a month.

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