A misreading of a Federal Election Commission rule prompted the Secret Service to spend an unmerited $3.9 million to reimburse 2016 presidential campaigns for the travel expenses of protective agents, a watchdog found.
Overall, the Secret Service spent $58 million during the campaigns to cover costs including airfare on charter flights, baggage charges, vehicle rentals, hotel rooms and meals, the Government Accountability Office found in a report released on Thursday requested by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Of those expenses, $17.1 million went toward reimbursing four campaign committees for seats on chartered flights, and that is where the overspending occurred, the watchdog said.
FEC rules, reinforced by the Federal Travel Regulation, have required that the post-facto reimbursement requests for charter flights be calculated using the commercially available first-class airfare or pro rata fare—the cost of the agent’s seat on the charter flight calculated by taking the total cost of the charter divided by the number of passengers, GAO said.
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Since 1977, the Secret Service paid campaigns whichever fare is lower. But GAO’s review conducted from April 2017 to May 2018 found that the Secret Service misinterpreted the rule and paid the pro rata fare to the campaign committees.
“Eight months before the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, Secret Service officials determined the interpretation was erroneous, but did not ensure the agency reverted to its long-standing policy,” auditors wrote. “During these 8 months, 66 percent of all campaign-related flights with special agents on board were taken.”
GAO blamed the Secret Service chief counsel (Donna Cahill) for accepting an interpretation from an attorney from the Clinton campaign in July 2015 saying special agents’ seats should be reimbursed at the pro rata fare based on an FEC regulation. The counsel also failed to consult with proper specialists on procedures that would have required paying the lower of the two fares after a comparison, GAO said.
GAO also randomly selected 40 overnight trips to assess the Secret Service’s compliance with provisions of its lodging policies and the Federal Travel Regulation. The Secret Service did not thoroughly review all receipts, auditors said.
The watchdog made five recommendations, including that the Secret Service recalculate the proper debt to the campaigns and take steps to balance the accounts. The Homeland Security Department agreed and is at work implementing the steps, though GAO noted that as of April 2018, the service still lacked specific plans, timelines and milestones for proceeding with the collections.