When a former investment banker joined the Commerce Department, among his earliest agenda items were renovations of his “beat up and run down” office and an upgrade to VIP travel accommodations, according to an inspector general’s report released on Thursday.
By pressuring his staff and by submitting poorly detailed documentation that eluded Commerce leaders, the official spent thousands of extra dollars on office improvements and stays in first-class hotels before being reimbursed a rate higher than the normal per diem, investigators found.
Identified only as “a political appointee” in the report, he was named in The Washington Post as Stefan Selig, undersecretary for international trade, who left Commerce quietly in June after two years.
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“Within weeks of being confirmed to his new position, Political Appointee visited his office suite in the Department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters for the first time” and commented that “it looked awful,” the report said. The appointee noted chipping and peeling paint, stained carpet, a non-functioning toilet with urine in it, non-matching furniture and some exposed wiring. “Indeed, Political Appointee said, conditions in the suite were such that a member of his family ‘almost started to cry’ upon viewing the space.”
Renovations were ordered that included a $10,000 carpet; $1,800 to have three doors stripped down and refinished; and $3,100 for reconfiguring light switches and “reinstalling a 50-inch television, apparently so that the television would sit at a more comfortable viewing angle,” said the IG, who was alerted by an anonymous tipster in 2015. They would appear to exceed the $5,000 limit on unapproved renovations set by Congress.
After trips to such cities as Geneva and New York, the official was “receiving unjustified reimbursements on multiple occasions for luxury hotel stays in violation of the Federal Travel Regulation and department policy, and a member of his staff [was] receiving questionable reimbursements for premium car service expenses associated with Political Appointee’s trips,” the report said. While taking 20 trips in his first year alone, he based his hotel choices on personal preference rather than mission necessity, the investigators determined, and “he was reimbursed above the standard per diem rate without adequately documented justification on over 60 percent of these trips.”
The official did in some cases volunteer to use his personal funds for the travel expenses, and justified some of the renovations as “routine maintenance.” The official also told interviewers that on some occasions the luxury hotels were the only options during peak periods.
But he was faulted for his “reliance on a staff member untrained in federal travel rules for making hotel and other arrangements for his trips, … an incorrect understanding on the part of those preparing Political Appointee’s travel paperwork that he was entitled to higher per diem rates due to the status of his position, and … poor paperwork oversight on the part of those with responsibility for reviewing Political Appointee’s travel expenses,” the report said.
Commerce leaders were faulted for not heading off the misuse of funds, though the investigators found no evidence they were aware of the problem.
The IG made several recommendations, including improving training of support staff for political appointees in making government travel arrangements, improving guidance for those appointees on renovations that create the appearance of using public funds for personal use, and better documentation and monitoring of office renovations. The IG also recommended that Commerce “take steps to make subordinates working for politically appointed officials feel empowered to report instances of potential regulatory, policy, or rule violations to their superiors or to the OIG.”