In what may be the first instance of an agency employee spending per diem allowance at the controversial Trump International Hotel, a General Services Administration official was newly revealed to have stayed last year at the Washington hotel that the agency leased to the Trump family business.
As reported on Saturday by CNN, travel expense records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the transparency group Property of the People showed a $900 expense for a four-night stay at the hotel in the Old Post Office Building. Separately, the records showed the employee (not publicly named) spent $750 at the BLT Prime steakhouse inside the hotel, which is separately owned but financially related, CNN said.
Ethics critics and rival restaurateurs have filed several lawsuits claiming that Trump’s decision to hold on to his businesses during his presidency by turning them over to his adult children represents a conflict of interest and possible violation of the Constitution’s foreign Emoluments Clause.
In an email statement to Government Executive, GSA press secretary Pam Dixon said, “GSA employees are responsible for making their own lodging and meal arrangements while on official business travel, and GSA reimburses its employees at the allowable per diem rates pursuant to federal rules and regulations and GSA’s travel policy.”
According to GSA’s travel rules, the regional employee in Washington on official business was reimbursed only for the standard $69 a day for meals and what at the time was the $182 daily rate for the hotel stay. Employees may use their travel cards for larger purchases at their own expense.
But to the critics, the disclosure raises issues of appearances and presidential conflict of interest.
"Regardless of how much he makes on any individual transaction, the president is sending a signal that the White House is open for business," said Property of the People co-founder Ryan Shapiro, who filed the FOIA request with GSA. "Due to his refusal to divest from his sprawling business empire, Donald Trump has turned the American presidency into a racket."
Steven Schooner, a law professor at The George Washington University who was associate administrator in the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy during the Clinton administration, was also critical. “This unattractive example is just more evidence that GSA has been disturbingly tone-deaf on this issue since long before the election,” he told Government Executive. “One of the things GSA has been least willing to acknowledge is that in the community of government employees, we attempt to avoid both actual and apparent conflicts of interest.”
Noting that the hotel stay predates the arrival of current GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, Schooner added that he “would hope the administrator has attempted to send a strong message that this is not the way GSA plans to behave, and that individual employees should avoid these types of eyesore moments.”
Schooner has been advising plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Trump's contract to lease the hotel building while also being president.