Air Force officials have improperly diverted millions of dollars in recreation funds, using them to pay for unauthorized luxuries on bases, from golf courses to gold-plated chandeliers to lavish parties, according to recent audits by the service.
A $75,000 renovation of an officers' club at a base in England ballooned into a $2.2 million project, including $145,000 gold-plated chandeliers and thousands of dollars for marble fireplaces and solid oak paneling, according to auditors.
When Air Force officials discovered that a construction project for the B-2 bombers scheduled to be housed at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., was $1 million over budget, base commanders recommended cutting office space rather than a planned $722,000 renovation of the base skeet-shooting club, records show.
Commanding officers at Ramstein Air Base in Germany improperly spent $26,000 to throw lavish going-away parties for the Air Force's departing commanding general in Europe, auditors reported.
"It reveals a mindset among some senior Air Force officials that the bases they command are their own personal fiefdoms, with appropriated funds to be used at their discretion regardless of law and regulation," Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney after reviewing the audit findings.
Air Force auditors concluded that the service's oversight and control of its recreation fund accounts were "not adequate" and that base operations "were not in compliance with with congressional guidance." Auditors said 84 percent of the 32 bases they examined this year were improperly spending "morale, welfare and recreation" funds and that Air Force control over the problems had "deteriorated" since a previous audit conducted six years ago.
The recreation funds originally were established to provide low-cost leisure activities for military officers and enlisted personnel. But continuing scandals in the programs and declining Defense Department budgets in recent years prompted Congress to put tighter restrictions on the money and to require the military to pay for more recreational improvements with money generated by the clubs, golf courses and other facilities rather than with taxpayer money.
Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice, after reviewing the new audits, said "revamping of the morale, welfare and recreation system is not only necessary . . . it is overdue." Rice said he has appointed a committee to find ways to improve management of the money.
Air Force auditors found that $9.2 million was spent for improper construction projects at 10 bases, including $1.5 million for major projects on golf courses -- even though use of taxpayer money for golf courses has been prohibited since 1985. Another $9.5 million in misspent money was covered up by splitting major projects into smaller work orders "to avoid higher headquarters' approval requirements and funding constraints," auditors said.
Auditors found that a $75,000 repair of the officers' club at an air base in Mildenhall, England, "evolved into a $2.2 million renovation without justification and congressional notification."
The Air Force auditors concluded that the base commander's selection of gold-plated chandeliers, oak paneling and fireplaces "bordered on extravagance."
Col. Howard Guiles, commander of the base's 513th Airborne Command and Control Wing, in written comments submitted to the auditors, said buying chandeliers that cost $31,800 apiece rather than the cheaper $15,900 models was justified because "low-quality chandeliers could not act as the main architectural highlight of a room as the existing chandeliers do."
"The crystal used would not have the capability to break apart the available light in a room into its primary colors (prism effect)," Guiles wrote.
He also said that he recommended using an expensive oak paneling rather than cheaper paneling because less expensive panels would "sound hollow to the touch and would significantly degrade from the apparent quality" of the officers' club. Auditors said they found his reasoning for spending the extra $27,000 on the expensive wood "inappropriate."
The auditors also reported:
An Air Force commander insisted on spending $221,000 in taxpayer money for an Italian restaurant at Yokota Air Base in Japan even though studies showed it would not be profitable. The Villa Roma was closed two years later after losing $100,000.
Myrtle Beach Air Force Base officials in South Carolina improperly used $599,877 in taxpayer money for 22 golf course projects, according to auditors.
Officials at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts improperly spent $796,515 to replace 10 dilapidated cabins at a recreation center by listing the work as a series of minor construction projects that would not reveal the total unauthorized cost.