That's not the only money issue in the Commerce Department, where officials are trying to decide if they can recover thousands of dollars in payments to Census Bureau employes who worked out of town during 1980's nationwide nose count.

The department had authorized in advance a flat $35-per-day payment to the workers, some of whom were on the road for as long as 10 months. Under normal rules, traveling bureaucrats are paid the average cost of lodgings plus $16 a day, not to exceed $35 a day.

By staying in inexpensive apartment hotels and the like, some of the Census workers got by for as little as $2.67 in lodging costs, according to the GAO, and now Commerce wants to see if, after the fact, it can get the difference back. After GAO alerted his office to the problem, Commerce inspector general Sherman Funk found $13,000 worth of such overpayments in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area alone, "and that's just one area out of the whole country."

Funk said the department's general counsel was looking into the legality of the per diem authorization with an eye to asking for the money back. "We can be very greedy in situations like that," he said.