Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tip of the Iceberg

If it's any consolation to those current (and former) GSA officials who partied like kings on the taxpayers' dime, they won't be the last to face the wrath of Congress--and the public--over their profligate spending habits.

A former Air Force official, who remains hard-wired into the service's leadership circles, tells us that all units have received a short-notice tasker, in the wake of the GSA mess and the prostitution scandal that has ensnared a number Secret Service agents and military personnel.  According to the official, units have been told to provide a listing of all conferences, symposia, training events, official ceremonies and other functions that required the expenditure of temporary duty (TDY) travel funds over the past seven years.

There was no immediate indication if the tasker came from DoD, or directly from Congress, which has reportedly expanded its probe into lavish trips taken by government employees, ostensibly on "official" business. GSA's now-infamous 2010 regional conference in Las Vegas cost taxpayers more than $800,000, for an event attended by only 300 employees.

Making matters worse, senior agency officials took a number of planning visits to Vegas in the months before the conference, adding to its outrageous expenses.  One senior GSA staffer reportedly took his wife along on one of the trips, and even posed for photos in the bathtub of his luxury suite, images that were later posted on social media.          

Word of the accounting tasker suggests someone is casting a wide net, looking for other examples of fraudulent and abusive travel by government employees.  And there's plenty of gold in them thar TDY hills.  Talk to anyone who's served in the military and they can usually recite stories of questionable trips by senior officials to exotic locales, while supposedly conducting government business.

Consider the case of Air Force Colonel Arthur Huber II, currently Vice Commander of the service's Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.  Between 2006 and 2009,.Huber served as Commander of the Arnold Engineering Development Center at Arnold AFB, TN.  While at Arnold, sources claim, Huber took expensive--and some say questionable--trips to such locations as Belize, China, and India.

While it's unclear if Huber's trips are under scrutiny, there have been questions about the military's travel habits in years past.  Back in 2007, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma requested a detailed accounting of the Pentagon's conference budget.  Available figures suggested that DoD was spending upwards of $100 million a year on conferences, meetings and related events at that time--and we can only imagine the budget has increased since then.

Mr. Coburn was probably puzzled (as were we) about skyrocketing conference budgets in an era of secure teleconferencing.  The Pentagon spent billions on those capabilities during the last decade, and they justified the expenditure (in part) by promising lower costs for conferences and official travel.

Of course, few government officials or politicians (save Senator Coburn) bothered to hold the military accountable on these issues.  In fact, we're not sure if Mr. Coburn ever received all of the information he requested.  That would't be a surprise, either.  Any senior government official worth his (or her) salt has long since mastered the "art of the stall, creating the illusion of activity while failing to deliver data that might be potentially embarrassing or incriminating.

Something tells us Senator Coburn won't be as accommodating this time.  Nor should he be.  There's plenty of waste in the defense travel budget, and some of those excursions will make the GSA look like pikers.
ADDENDUM:  In fairness, there is a certain irony over Congressional outrage regarding travel by civil service employees.  After all, our elected representatives invented something called a junket, which (typically) represents a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.  And that's one reason Congress may tread lightly on the issue of military travel.  They certainly wouldn't want the Pentagon to release damning details about the latest "fact-finding" mission to Fiji, or some other global hotspot.

And sadly, these wasteful travel habits are nothing new.  In the late 1980s, a former colleague was tasked to prepare a threat summary briefing for the wife of General Robert D. Russ, Commander of Tactical Air Command (now Air Combat Command).  When the assignment was made, the intel officer was told the presentation was in support of some type of "official" visit to the Philippines.  The intel analyst worked on the briefing for more than a week, then delivered it to a very disinterested general's wife.

My colleague later learned that the "visit" was little more than a shopping trip, with the four-star's wife travelling on USAF aircraft and staying in VIP quarters at Clark AB.  Of course, wasting money was old habit for this particular general.  General Russ was a moving force behind the rehabilitation of the base golf course at Langley AFB, VA (where his headquarters was located) in the late 1980s.  The effort involved a combat engineering team and more than $900,000 in taxpayer dollars.            


Chuck said...

Welcome back, Spook!!

cheers chuck

Brian said...

Vice Commander? That job title looks suspicious in the current circumstances :)

William deB. Mills said...

This TDY stuff is unbelievable. The Fed Gov has clear rules on all this, as every low-level member of the bureaucracy knows. When you go on TDY, you get a set rate for hotel and food based on location. You can sleep in the gutter and pocket the change or take the gov. rate at the best hotel in town and pay the difference between your food allowance and the cost of a banquet. Very simple and egalitarian.

Anyone in government who gets any benefit beyond the above is ripping off the taxpayers. Government ethics are clear; the only thing that is fuzzy is how such clear rules can be violated with impunity.