The Department of Veterans Affairs has spent $61 million in travel funds on items other than travel since 1993 and let some top officials approve their own expenses, according to a critical report by congressional investigators.

The VA did not report the reprogramming of the funds to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which lawmakers had requested.

However, failure to report the switching of funds to areas such as salaries and equipment did not constitute a crime, said the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The GAO also criticized the VA travel policy that allowed at least five administrators to authorize and approve their own travel expenses.

"This lack of internal controls over open travel authorizations and delegated travel authority increases the potential for abuse," the GAO said in the report released earlier this week.

In June 1998, one VA official claimed hotel expenses of $260 a night, staying in Washington. The lodging allowance was less than half of that, $126 a night, the GAO said. No explanation for the increased costs was provided by the official. Another official issued a four-month blanket authorization for all staff travel to a county where lodging exceeded 200 percent of the allowance.

In a written response, Dennis Duffy, the VA assistant secretary for planning and analysis, agreed with the need for monitoring the officials.

But he did not agree with the GAO recommendation to change the excess budget claims. The VA plans to spend more money on travel in the future, because of more community care and hospital-based home care. The overestimate is necessary to cushion that increase, he said.

Although the VA staff has traveled more over the past three years, the gap between requests and actual expenditures has narrowed, according to the GAO report. In 1996, the VA request exceeded the actual travel by $28 million, in 1997 by $11 million and in 1998 by $5 million.

The total excess request from fiscal 1993 through fiscal 1998 was $61 million, the GAO said.

There is a requirement to report to the Senate Appropriations Committee any reprogramming of funds over $250,000.