By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Pentagon personnel took more than 22,000 trips paid for by foreign countries, private companies and other nongovernmental sources over the past decade, raising conflict-of-interest concerns, according to watchdog groups that yesterday released the first public database of such travel.
The trips, which took place from 1998 to 2007, cost at least $26 million and often involved companies or governments paying for travel by defense officials who were in a position to influence purchasing decisions that could benefit those footing the bill, according to a year-long investigation of ethics documents by the Center for Public Integrity and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Defense officials say the travel was legal and took place in conformity with existing regulations, but those leading the investigation said it created relationships that had the potential to distort Pentagon spending and therefore should be curtailed.
"The Pentagon itself should be paying for these trips," said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. He described the travel as being "riddled with conflicts of interest."
For example, he said, the biggest source of free travel was the medical industry, which funded about 8,700 trips worth $10 million for military doctors, pharmacists and others involved with the Pentagon's purchases of prescription drugs.
In one case, the investigation found that an Army doctor took at least 15 trips worth $13,000 to places such as Florida and Arizona that were paid for by the medical technology company Medtronic, and then wrote a journal article that overstated the benefits of a drug sold by Medtronic to treat bone injuries.
Foreign governments paid for 1,500 trips worth about $2.6 million. In one case in 2005, a senior official at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon body responsible for approving weapons purchases by foreign governments, took his wife on a $24,000, eight-day trip to Saudi Arabia paid for by a Saudi prince. The prince was a commander of the Saudi national guard, and from 2003 to 2006 the Saudi government was involved in billions of dollars in weapons purchases through DSCA programs.
Another large category involved manufacturers of retail goods -- such as Nike, Sony and Mattel -- that paid about $470,000 for 500 trips, many of them by military personnel in charge of purchasing for outlets on military bases. The trips included thousands of jaunts to vacation destinations such as Honolulu, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, with spouses of defense personnel taking part in hundreds of such trips, the investigation found.
Pentagon officials said the trips were necessary, saved taxpayer money, and in the case of foreign governments were customary and if refused could have caused offense, according to the study.
"When we visit other countries at their invitation, it is common for the host country to pay for ground transportation, local security needs and officially hosted meals for the principal and perhaps one or two staff members," said Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We do the same here in the U.S. when foreign military dignitaries accept our invitation to visit," he said, adding: "All costs either expended or accepted by the U.S. government for these trips are approved."
Although acknowledging that some outside-funded travel may be beneficial, Buzenberg and others involved with the research said it has the potential to generate unnecessary spending of taxpayer money and should at a minimum be opened to public scrutiny.
"The real point of this is to shed light on a little-known practice," said Ellen Shearer, director of Medill's Washington Program. The probe into Pentagon travel followed a similar investigation that turned up $55 million in lobbyist-funded congressional travel and led to rule changes in 2007.