D.C. city workers are taking vacations on the taxpayer dime:
On average, the District spends about $220 per employee on out-of-town travel each year. That compares with about $40 per employee in Baltimore, $80 in San Francisco and $150 in Philadelphia and is also higher than the figures in Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and several other jurisdictions, according to a survey by The Washington Post.
Many agency heads, however, do not share that view. The Department of Corrections, for example, authorized 25 employees to go to a six-day American Correctional Association conference in 2002. The list included a secretary, several staff assistants, a sheet-metal worker and several guards. The event promised keynote speaker Don Shula, the former Miami Dolphins football coach.
The department also has sent groups to conferences every year since.
Corrections officials defended the conference travel, saying it promotes “the best practices in the corrections industry,” Interim Director S. Elwood York Jr. wrote in response to questions.
In late 2003, the Department of Health sent 39 employees to a five-day public health conference in San Francisco. The bill: $71,932.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” said Health Director Gregg A. Pane. “If anything, I think we don’t do enough for our employees for professional development and training.”
More than any other agency, the city’s school system racks up travel expenses by sending clusters of employees to training and seminars. In 2003 and 2004, that agency averaged $60,000 a month.
“Professional development efforts can only strengthen the ability of our teachers to give our students the best education possible,” said Thomas Brady, head of business operations for the schools.
To the tune of sixty grand per month? My guess is that the people taking those trips aren’t the teachers. A passing familiarity with the history of D.C. public school system scandals lends some pretty credible support to my hunch.
Oh, but there’s more:
n December 2003, for example, four D.C. police officers had been on the ground in Miami Beach only a few hours when they hit the bar and started a tab, records show. They’d flown in for training in handgun use and “high-risk boat boarding,” but for part of their afternoon they were otherwise engaged: An hour after they started their tab, they paid for nine bottles of Corona and five schooners of light beer.
That wasn’t the end of the beer — their lunch tabs included drinks every day they were in the Miami area. But back in Washington, when their receipts were tallied by city accountants, the drinking on taxpayer time drew no notice.
Assistant Chief Winston Robinson Jr. said the department investigated after The Post inquired about the receipts for drinks. The officers were counseled and ordered to reimburse the city, and the department issued a policy explicitly forbidding drinking during training.
Since 2000, the police department’s Harbor Patrol Unit has spent more than $100,000 on training trips. Officers have visited Alaska, Puerto Rico, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Federal grants usually pay for one officer to attend training, but the District often sends more. In 2004, the city sent three to St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
“The more people that we can have go, the better off we’re going to be,” said Capt. Jeffrey Herold, who oversees the unit.
Across many agencies, employees received travel advance payments but never submitted receipts or vouchers to account for the money, including at the police department, where $20,000 in advances were issued without receipts or vouchers in the previous two years. City policy places firm daily limits on hotel and food costs, but many agencies exempt themselves from the rule on virtually every trip.
The city’s travel credit cards, issued to select employees in dozens of agencies, are frequently misused, records show. Under city rules, they can be used only for transportation, food and lodging on the road.
But billing records show that more than $27,000 was charged in the past four years in violation of city rules, including for four computers, membership dues and $500 in Red Lobster gift certificates.
The definition of necessary business can be broad. The Department of Transportation spent about $2,000 in federal funds to send a traffic engineer to study highway safety in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002. The agency said he learned that the Russians were “years behind.”
In 2003, lottery director Jeanette A. Michael decided at the last minute to attend the National Forum for Black Public Administrators but did not get the necessary authorization before the trip.
She stayed four nights in a $376 “ocean front deluxe” room on a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., beach and said she spent the time mentoring young public officials. The hotel, registration, food and air travel cost taxpayers $2,346, records show.
Sherryl Hobbs Newman, recently named to run the Office of Tax and Revenue, traveled on city business overseas and nationally about a dozen times from 2002 to 2004, records show. In 2002, Newman, then head of the Department of Motor Vehicles, traveled with two staff members and stayed four nights at the four-star Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells, Calif., records show. But the city could produce no records authorizing the trip or explaining its purpose.
The city initially could not produce the required paperwork showing how Newman spent about $3,000 in advances for trips to New Orleans and Asia in 2004.
Good article to keep in mind next time D.C. faces a revenue crunch.