D.C. agencies spent $60,000 on travel after Fenty ordered freeze

By Tim Craig and Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 12, 2010; 11:55 PM

In the weeks after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) ordered a freeze on government travel, District agencies continued to charge more than $60,000 in travel-related expenses to taxpayers, city records indicate.

On Oct. 4, Fenty ordered a halt on most city hiring and a freeze on current workers' salaries and benefits, as well as a halt to travel or training, "except for training required by law to maintain certification necessary to carry out the employee's District government duties."

The actions were intended as a first step in closing a budget gap expected to reach $175 million in the current fiscal year.

But in the three weeks after Fenty's order, city agencies continued to charge air and rail fares, hotel rooms and other travel-related expenses to city credit cards. Records reviewed by The Washington Post indicate at least $60,000 in such charges since Fenty's order was issued. The travel was first reported by WAMU-FM. Travel expenses in the same span in 2009 totaled about $200,000.

The D.C. National Guard spent $1,325 on flights. The police department charged more than $5,400 in travel costs, and the fire and emergency medical services department spent more than $6,000.

Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the fire department, said that two employees attended a training seminar held by the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators in Las Vegas. Those employees, he said, required certification to administer veterans' benefits for fire and emergency medical services employees

"It was legit on our end," Piringer said, adding that the trip had been approved before the freeze.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who has been a critic of fire department overspending, questioned whether the employees needed to go as far as Las Vegas to get certified.

"The optics are horrible," he said. "For the present time, I think these agencies should be curtailing travel."

Spokesmen for several agencies contacted Friday said travel charged to their accounts either was essential or occurred at little cost to District taxpayers.

Robin Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, confirmed that Director Millicent W. West stayed at a lavish Ritz Carlton in Boston on the night of Oct. 4, costing taxpayers $547. But Johnson said the hotel was hosting the Big City Emergency Managers Meeting, an annual gathering where the leaders of "high-targeted cities" gather to share information about possible natural and man-made threats.

Later in the month, West and four top associates traveled to Little Rock for the National Emergency Management Association meeting, another trip agency leaders said was crucial to keeping District residents safe.

"The information that is gathered, this agency relies heavily upon . . . and it's an organization that is tied into what we do every day," said Johnston, noting that fewer agency officials traveled to that conference than in previous years.

In mid-October, the Transportation Department charged more than $1,200 at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. Karyn LeBlanc, a department spokeswoman, said several of the agency's IT specialists traveled to Las Vegas for a "development conference." But LeBlanc said the federal government would be reimbursing the city for the cost of the trip to the summit, which was designed to improve local governments' efforts to use software to reach out to the public.

"We charge it ourselves, and then we submit to the feds," LeBlanc said.

On Oct. 28, the Department of the Environment had a $331 hotel bill at a Hilton in North Carolina. But Donna Henry, the agency's public information officer, said the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments would be reimbursing the city for those travel expenses, which were related to a hearing by the International Code Council.

"The purpose of the trip was to participate and vote on adoption of the new international building codes . . . and a whole raft of green-building energy and efficiency practices," Henry said.

The Health Department racked up more than $5,200 in airline tickets and hotel bills since the travel ban was implemented. Dena Iverson, a department spokeswoman, said nearly all that travel appeared related to training requirements for agency staffers that would be paid for through federal grants.

The University of the District of Columbia spent nearly $9,000 on airfare and lodging since Oct. 4, including almost $1,100 for rooms at the Hotel Royal Plaza at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando.

Alan Etter, a university spokesman, was not immediately able to provide details on the spending late Friday, but said the university president, Allen G. Sessoms, travels regularly to promote the school.

"That's part of the job, frankly," Etter said.

craigt@washpost.com debonism@washpost.com

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