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.
"Professional development efforts can only strengthen the ability of our teachers to give our students the best education possible," said Thomas Brady, head of business operations for the schools.
Policy violations can get lost in the travel budget. In December 2003, for example, four D.C. police officers had been on the ground in Miami Beach only a few hours when they hit the bar and started a tab, records show. They'd flown in for training in handgun use and "high-risk boat boarding," but for part of their afternoon they were otherwise engaged: An hour after they started their tab, they paid for nine bottles of Corona and five schooners of light beer.
That wasn't the end of the beer -- their lunch tabs included drinks every day they were in the Miami area. But back in Washington, when their receipts were tallied by city accountants, the drinking on taxpayer time drew no notice.
Assistant Chief Winston Robinson Jr. said the department investigated after The Post inquired about the receipts for drinks. The officers were counseled and ordered to reimburse the city, and the department issued a policy explicitly forbidding drinking during training.
"There should be no drinking during training hours. There's no way," said Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey.
Since 2000, the police department's Harbor Patrol Unit has spent more than $100,000 on training trips. Officers have visited Alaska, Puerto Rico, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Federal grants usually pay for one officer to attend training, but the District often sends more. In 2004, the city sent three to St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
"The more people that we can have go, the better off we're going to be," said Capt. Jeffrey Herold, who oversees the unit.
Ramsey said his department's travel is not excessive.
Officials at each of the city's agencies can authorize travel, charging it to local or federal funding sources. City rules require that employees receive written authorization before the trip and that when they return, they submit detailed reports on how they spent the funds.
Across many agencies, employees received travel advance payments but never submitted receipts or vouchers to account for the money, including at the police department, where $20,000 in advances were issued without receipts or vouchers in the previous two years. City policy places firm daily limits on hotel and food costs, but many agencies exempt themselves from the rule on virtually every trip.
Ultimately, oversight for the spending falls under Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. After questions from a reporter, Gandhi implemented new monitoring and controls over travel authorizations and receipts to show how city money was spent, he said.
"We will tighten things up," said Larry Daniels, who oversees Gandhi's accounting clerks.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a statement that he is "constantly looking for ways to make the government more accountable and efficient, and we will certainly scrub travel records to make sure out-of-town trips are done economically and strictly for professional development."
The city's travel credit cards, issued to select employees in dozens of agencies, are frequently misused, records show. Under city rules, they can be used only for transportation, food and lodging on the road.
But billing records show that more than $27,000 was charged in the past four years in violation of city rules, including for four computers, membership dues and $500 in Red Lobster gift certificates.
The definition of necessary business can be broad. The Department of Transportation spent about $2,000 in federal funds to send a traffic engineer to study highway safety in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002. The agency said he learned that the Russians were "years behind."
In 2003, lottery director Jeanette A. Michael decided at the last minute to attend the National Forum for Black Public Administrators but did not get the necessary authorization before the trip.
She stayed four nights in a $376 "ocean front deluxe" room on a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., beach and said she spent the time mentoring young public officials. The hotel, registration, food and air travel cost taxpayers $2,346, records show.
A month after she returned, she sought authorization for the trip, offering to pay the portion of the lodging that exceeded government limits. But the city never asked her for any money, Michael said in an interview.
Sherryl Hobbs Newman, recently named to run the Office of Tax and Revenue, traveled on city business overseas and nationally about a dozen times from 2002 to 2004, records show. In 2002, Newman, then head of the Department of Motor Vehicles, traveled with two staff members and stayed four nights at the four-star Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells, Calif., records show. But the city could produce no records authorizing the trip or explaining its purpose.
The city initially could not produce the required paperwork showing how Newman spent about $3,000 in advances for trips to New Orleans and Asia in 2004. Recently, city officials produced some records. Newman said that all her trips were authorized and that she handed in the paperwork.
In August 2003, when Williams flew to Honolulu to address a trade group, his police escort bought a pair of last-minute tickets for $2,400 each. With hotel, travel and food, police paid more than $9,000 for the trip, city records show.
Three months earlier, officers went to Las Vegas with Williams. Their charges included $260-a-night hotel rooms, laundry service and an 11 p.m. tab for $92 at the Rumjungle, a casino bar that features go-go dancers and other entertainment. The city said the tab was for dinner for two officers who had worked late.
When Williams went to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, D.C. police spent more than $15,000, including $475 hotel rooms.
The unit that guards the mayor charged more than $158,000 to its travel credit cards in 2004. Asked about the costs, Ramsey replied, "You've got to remember who works for who here."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.