Air Force Ethics Officials Abused Frequent Flyer Upgrades

Watchdog substantiates charge that two former senior lawyers violated gift regulations.

The former Air Force general counsel and his then deputy violated government gift regulations using an arrangement in which the subordinate routinely transferred to his boss his eligibility for airline flight seat upgrades, according to a pair of reports released Wednesday by the Defense Department inspector general.  

Charles Blanchard, who served as the top lawyer and senior ethics official in the Air Force from 2009-2013, and his deputy Michael Zehner were accused by an anonymous hotline tipster of exchanging upgrades on United Airlines from Economy class to Economy Plus on flights to various Southwest Asian countries during 2009-2012. Blanchard resigned in December 2013 and Zehner retired in August 2013.

Their conduct, the IG wrote, violated the department’s Joint Ethics Regulation and the Office of Personnel Management’s Guide to Senior Executive Service. “We conclude that Mr. Zehner improperly gifted airline seat upgrades to his official superior and solicited a gift of an airline seat upgrade from another employee for his official superior,” one report said. “We found that Mr. Zehner provided at least 10 airline seat upgrades to his official superior. The upgrading of Mr. Zehner’s official superior’s seating was so commonplace that a mutual expectation developed.”

The ethics regulation prohibits superiors from soliciting gifts from subordinates as well as employees from giving gifts to their superiors. Title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines a gift as “any item with monetary value and allows employees on an occasional basis to give an official superior a gift with a value of $10 or less.” The seat upgrades were estimated to have a collective value between $1,199 and $1,859, the report said.

Both Blanchard and Zehner disagreed with a draft of the report’s conclusions. Zehner said the upgrades were generated from official travel and were not gifts. He said he earned his status solely through government-funded travel and that he designated Mr. Blanchard to receive upgraded seating only on government funded flights, which “actually saved the government money,” Zehner said.

Blanchard told investigators, “I knew that my salary was lower than Mike’s, so I -- that may be one reason I just didn’t think of the subordinate gift rule. And also, it . . . something that Mike didn’t have that was of any benefit to himself being a gift. It was just his ability to get the airline . . . to upgrade.”

But the IG’s office didn’t buy Blanchard’s or Zehner’s arguments. The IG substantiated that Blanchard had misused his position to solicit the upgrades, and that Zehner improperly gifted his boss multiple upgrades and solicited an upgrade from another employee to give to Blanchard. Other accusations were not substantiated.

The report quoted Zehner saying in an interview, “I think in the military there’s a structure of trying to make sure the boss is as comfortable as possible.”

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