Watchdog calls for reform of Justice travel policies

The Justice Department should change its travel polices to stop some U.S. attorneys from gaming the system, according to a new report from the department's inspector general.

In a review of travel expenses filed by U.S. attorneys that exceeded government lodging rates, the IG found policy inconsistencies and poor oversight were to a certain degree to blame for recurring abuses among a small percentage of attorneys. The watchdog suggested the Justice management division reform its multilayered approach to travel reimbursement.

The IG office conducted its review between 2007 and 2009 in response to growing concerns that U.S. attorneys were spending excessive amounts on travel arrangements. The assessment found the majority of attorneys did not exceed government lodging rates, but investigators cited five U.S. attorneys who consistently spent more than they were supposed to. The report did not name the attorneys.

The abuses stemmed largely from policies that allowed attorneys to authorize many of their own travel expenses, the IG concluded. In these situations, an attorney and his or her staff would be the only body to review expenses. If an attorney's expenses exceeded government rates on a travel authorization, then the staff simply would increase the preauthorized amount.

Furthermore, attorneys and their staff were not required to document and justify unsuccessful attempts to find lodging that falls within government rates. In one of the cases documented in the report, the secretary of one repeat offender would call four of the most exclusive hotels in Washington, and when none met the government lodging rate, she would deem the rate "unavailable."

In addition, two oversight bodies -- the Executive Office for United States Attorneys and JMD's Fiscal Services Section -- were ineffective at catching transgressions, the IG found. According to the senior adviser for management and operations at EOUSA, the agency does not have written policies on travel review in place. He admitted that, when reviewing, he focused his attention on the purpose of the travel.

FSS never saw most of the travel reimbursements in question because the unit reviewed only authorizations for foreign travel and trips that exceeded $2,500.

In response to the inspector general's review, EOUSA and JMD issued memoranda to reform Justice travel policies. EOUSA's order, released in February, established a travel office dedicated solely to managing the travel authorizations and vouchers of U.S. attorneys. Under the memos, EOUSA also must now approve all out-of-district travel and any in-district travel that exceeds government lodging rates.

In a response to the report, H. Marshall Jarrett, director of EOUSA, said, "Since the commencement of this review, the Executive Office for the United States Attorneys has developed travel policies and procedures that have substantially improved controls over United States attorney travel."

The IG applauded EOUSA's and JMD's reform efforts, but strongly suggested Justice revise its Travel Order and the U.S. Attorneys' Manual so they are consistent with policies in the new memoranda.

The watchdog also recommended Justice issue guidance as to what extent attorneys and their staffs must search before declaring government lodging rates unavailable. And investigators suggested requiring detailed justification in situations when attorneys exceed government rates.

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