DHS comes under fire for failure to track conference and travel costs

Homeland Security Department officials on Thursday acknowledged they lacked the means to know if the $110 million DHS spent on conferences and retreats between 2005 and 2007 was a good use of taxpayer money.

Addressing the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight, Carlton Mann, assistant inspector general for inspections for the DHS Office of Inspector General, urged better oversight of future conference and travel decisions. Although the department spent less than 1 percent of available funds on conferences, "these small ratios represent millions of dollars where management vulnerabilities can exist," he said. "DHS must exercise due diligence to ensure that funding conference-related activities is an appropriate means for accomplishing departmentwide objectives."

According to an audit by the department's IG released in November 2009, DHS officials were unable to produce consistent numbers on conference spending and keep tabs on costs. The report also stated that Homeland Security had not clearly identified responsibilities, authorities or terminology to track how money was spent.

The audit presents "an extremely troubling picture of not only the amount of money spent, but also a lack of internal controls, minimal oversight and insufficient reporting throughout the entire department," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the full committee.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., decried the limited departmentwide procedures for determining or minimizing the number of employees attending conferences. "The only 'test' that appears to be in place for determining the necessity of travel is whether funding is available," he said. "This must be fixed."

He also questioned DHS for buying employees plane tickets that cost as much as $8,000, and about the possibility of unnecessary food reimbursements.

Mann said because the department operates in a decentralized financial management environment, it was hard to consolidate costs. He called for conference planning policies to be defined and monitored at the department level to ensure consistency across components.

Elaine Duke, undersecretary for management at DHS, agreed with most of the IG's findings, and said some progress had been made already. In October 2008, DHS issued a handbook delineating its policies on employee travel expenses and conference planning. In March 2009, it launched a review to streamline operations and trim costs. Duke said the department would use conference calls, local events and Web-based communications whenever possible.

Last November, DHS established a conference and event planning services working group to develop a resource package with low- or no-cost alternatives for employees to use when planning conferences and events.

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