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Admin Officials Bill $1.5Mn For Private Air Travel

Administration Officials Billed Taxpayers $1.5 Million for Private Air Travel

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Friday 27 October 2006

On the campaign trail, Bush administration officials often boast that Republicans are more savvy than their Democratic colleagues when it comes to issues like taxes and the economy in general. But behind the scenes, dozens of cabinet members and agency officials are living in the lap of luxury at taxpayers' expense.

According to a 10-page letter sent to the Office of Management and Budget released late Wednesday by Congressman Henry Waxman, the senior Democrat on the House Government Affairs Committee, more than $1.5 million has been spent and billed to taxpayers so cabinet heads including Education Secretary Rodney Paige could travel on private jets to tout controversial bills like the No Child Left Behind Act. Since October 2004, much of the first-class travel by agency officials was conducted in battleground states during the height of the contentious presidential campaign. Waxman has said the administration has wasted money on luxurious travel expenses and unfairly expect taxpayers to foot the bill.

Federal regulations restrict the use of private aircraft for traveling on official business unless the trip cannot be scheduled by a commercial airliner. However, administration officials chartered private jets on 125 different occasions to travel to more than 300 different locations across the United States - most of which, Waxman says, skyrocketed during the heated election season.

For example, during the 2004 campaign, the use of private jets and helicopters "was over four times higher than in non-election years."

"In 2004, the heads of federal departments and agencies traveled on private aircraft at taxpayer expense at least 36 times to 74 locations," Waxman wrote in the letter. "Much of this travel was concentrated in electoral battleground states. In October 2004, Education Secretary Rod Paige spent $50,290 to charter a private jet to travel from Philadelphia to Kansas City. In each city, Secretary Paige hosted Town Hall events in which he called the Leave No Child Left Behind Act 'the most powerful civil rights act in the last three decades.'"

Paige also used private jets to travel to three key states - Washington, Missouri, and Pennsylvania - to promote the No Child Left behind legislation. No reason was given as to why Paige's office chartered private jets instead of using a commercial airliner. Officials at the Department of Education did not return calls for comment.

Waxman said in the letter that his office opened up an inquiry in June into the administration's use of private jets to promote campaign issues and White House policies and received responses from 14 federal departments including the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Labor, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Transportation Veterans Affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to his request for information. A majority of the secretaries in these offices chartered private jets or helicopters to give keynote speeches at fundraisers or discuss administration policies, Waxman said.

Waxman said using private jets or helicopters is a misuse of tax dollars, and the issue has become widespread throughout various parts of the administration. Michael Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, spent $726,048 during the first six months of 2006 to travel to 19 destinations in order to promote administration policies. Between 1999 and 2005, the Health and Human Services agency did not spend any money on private air travel. Leavitt's office did not return a call for comment, but Leavitt's spokeswoman, Christina Pearson, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday that Leavitt's "use of private jets was proper and the most efficient and most effective way to get problems solved."

Federal regulations, however, say that the most cost-efficient way for officials to travel is by commercial airline. The Office of Management and Budget regulations says "official travel to give speeches, to attend conferences, or meetings, or to make routine site visits," is not a requirement that justifies using private aircraft. Waxman believes the urgency surrounding hotly-contested Congressional campaigns in states where Democrats are closing in on Republicans is the reason for the spike in private air travel.

"Cabinet secretaries are currently crisscrossing the nation to make appearances with members of Congress in close races, " Waxman wrote to Office of Management and Budget Administrator Rob Portman. "It would be a misuse of taxpayer dollars if, as in 2004, these officials were traveling on private jets paid for with federal funds. I urge you to impose a moratorium on any additional government-funded travel aboard private aircraft, except when strictly required by mission related activities."

Portman's office confirmed that it had received Waxman's letter, but could not comment until officials there had an opportunity to review the charges.


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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