Feds rewrite travel rules for U.S. attorneys
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Mary Beth Buchanan spent more than half of her eight years as U.S. attorney in the Western District of Pennsylvania on the road, racking up at least 347 trips that cost taxpayers more than $450,000.
Ms. Buchanan, a Republican who stepped down in November, a year after a Democrat won the White House, and other U.S. attorneys often were permitted to sign off on their own travel and then get rubber-stamp approval from the Executive Office of United States Attorneys.
In March, however, the Department of Justice under the Obama administration changed those regulations after reviewing travel by all 93 U.S. attorneys. The department now requires approval for out-of-district travel from the director or deputy director of the executive office.
"The previous policies and procedures were admittedly inconsistent," said department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz. "Changes to the process were made to ensure full compliance with departmental travel policies and procedure and to strengthen controls and oversight of U.S. attorney travel."
The idea, she said, is to improve transparency and the use of taxpayer dollars.
Department officials would not say whether a specific incident prompted the change. Nor would they specifically address Ms. Buchanan's travel or how it compared with that of other U.S. attorneys.
Ms. Schwartz said the review showed no particular pattern of travel by U.S. attorneys, and that the nature of their trips was dictated by expertise, as well as the types of cases being tried in each district.
Ms. Buchanan's travel included speeches to universities, the American Bar Association and nonprofit groups, as well as trips to the Pennsylvania Society, a group of state politicians and business leaders that meets annually in Manhattan.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette requested Ms. Buchanan's travel records from the Justice Department in October -- more than a month before she stepped down.
The department, however, did not provide the records until April and May. The records show that Ms. Buchanan sometimes spent only a day or two out of each month in Pittsburgh and the rest of her time in Washington, D.C., or elsewhere while serving the department in a number of high-profile positions.
During the seven years for which records were provided, Ms. Buchanan took 347 trips, traveling 391,324 miles. She spent 1,047 days on some form of travel, at a cost of $453,155.
Of those trips, half -- 173 -- involved going back and forth to Washington, where she served for a year as director of the Executive Office of United States Attorneys and later as the acting director of the Office on Violence Against Women.
"I traveled almost every week," she said. "That was no surprise to anyone."
Ms. Buchanan also served for a year as chairwoman of the attorney general's advisory committee. In that capacity, she traveled to subcommittee meetings in Washington, Connecticut, Illinois and California.
Ms. Buchanan said her travel requests always were submitted to the executive office for approval. Under some directors -- including when she served as director -- travel had to be approved by at least a deputy director. Directors who followed her in the office, however, delegated the approval to lower-level employees, Ms. Buchanan said.
"Every component has a mechanism for some type of review," she said. "so that there are checks and balances in the system."
During Ms. Buchanan's time at EOUSA, she went to Washington weekly on flights that cost nearly $600 each and spent $3,500 a month to rent an apartment there.
"Whenever you're balancing two full-time positions, it's difficult," she said. "It requires a lot of efficiency. But it's something a lot of us did during my tenure."
Michael Sullivan, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts under former President George W. Bush, also served in dual roles.
In August 2006 -- more than five years after he became the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts -- the administration asked him to fill in as acting director of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The assignment was supposed to be temporary, 90 to 120 days.
Then Mr. Sullivan was nominated to fill the position permanently. Had he been confirmed, he said he would have resigned his U.S. attorney position. But the Senate never confirmed the nomination, so his double duty lasted nearly two and a half years.
Trying to balance both positions was difficult, he said, but because he'd been U.S. attorney for five years before joining ATF, he was familiar with the mission of his office and the strengths of his staff.
"My open-door policy turned into a cell call or e-mail," he said. "People felt very confident if they needed to reach out to me or contact me."
But that didn't mean there wasn't a toll.
"You always felt like you weren't giving full-time attention to the work that needed to be done," he said. "There was always a level of distraction."
Mr. Sullivan said he never thought his absence had an impact on his district's cases, though it did affect the staff.
"I think it clearly has an impact on morale -- in a subtle way that builds over a period of time."
During Ms. Buchanan's absences, items that weren't pressing sat on her desk for weeks. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Cessar took care of such time-sensitive matters as getting indictments or other criminal charges signed. He would not comment for this story.
But Ms. Buchanan said they were in touch constantly. She also said she spent a lot of time in the office on weekends.
"The work had to get done, and it did get done," she said.
During Ms. Buchanan's tenure, the office led a five-year investigation of public corruption in the Allegheny County Sheriff's office that resulted in five convictions, including that of longtime sheriff Pete DeFazio. She also targeted child pornography, gun crime and obscenity and started a task force to pursue mortgage fraud before that became a nationwide issue.
In addition to her Washington trips, Ms. Buchanan also traveled to give 56 speeches, with costs totaling $52,690. Sponsoring organizations reimbursed the Justice Department for travel costs 15 times, for a total of $12,843, according to the records. Department policy dictates that U.S. attorneys not be paid for speeches.
Ms. Buchanan said the department often tapped her to attend conferences and speak on its behalf. Her most frequent topics: corporate compliance, the PATRIOT Act, human trafficking and sentencing guidelines.
But the public could view such spending as inappropriate, said Leslie Paige of the taxpayer watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste, based in Washington.
"We're in terrible duress financially -- individually and as a country," she said. "This kind of behavior is what fuels taxpayers' outrage."
Allowing individual U.S. attorneys to sign off on their own taxpayer-funded travel -- as was the case up until March -- "is a problem," Ms. Paige said.
"When a person's in charge of their own budget, they may be the most honest person in the world, but that's not the point," she said. "We have to trust the government is spending it appropriately."
According to federal policy, a U.S. government employee "must exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business."
The new travel regulations for U.S. attorneys also allow a random audit every six months to ensure compliance.
Those audits likely will examine the number of times a U.S. attorney exceeds the standard government-approved rate for lodging. Rates vary among cities to reflect demand and cost of living.
During New Jersey's recent gubernatorial election, unsuccessful candidate Jon Corzine accused opponent Chris Christie, who previously served as a U.S. attorney, of forcing taxpayers to foot the bill while he regularly exceeded the approved rate for hotel rooms during office-related travel. According to The Associated Press, Mr. Christie went over the government's allowance on 14 of 16 trips in 2008.
Out of 217 trips for which she required lodging outside of her travels for EOUSA and the Office on Violence Against Women, Ms. Buchanan exceeded the daily rate 63 times -- most notably for trips to Washington, Cleveland and Salt Lake City.
In May 2003 for an attorney general's advisory committee meeting, Ms. Buchanan spent $339 per night for three nights at the Mayflower Renaissance D.C. Hotel, which bills itself as a four-diamond luxury hotel. The approved government rate then for a night's stay in the nation's capital: $150.
During an October 2005 trip to speak at a continuing legal education event, she spent $219 for one night at the Cleveland Marriott. The standard rate then was $86.
In October 2006, Ms. Buchanan paid $229 per night for three nights to stay at the self-proclaimed "five-diamond luxury" Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. The approved rate was $90.
All of the overages were paid by the Department of Justice.
Exceeding the per diem is most likely in Washington, where demand for rooms at government rates is often high, Ms. Buchanan said. When hotels with approved rates were full, she said her staff first followed Justice Department procedure by calling at least three additional hotels on the government list -- often more -- to seek the lowest cost.
"I can assure you the process was followed each and every time," she said.
When individual U.S. attorneys did go over the government rate at that time, they could approve the expense themselves.
According to Ms. Schwartz, the DOJ spokeswoman, many federal employees seek permission to go over the recommended per diem occasionally. That is not supposed to occur frequently, she said.
Ms. Buchanan also attended a number of conferences, including a five-day American Bar Association meeting in Honolulu in August 2006, and a six-day gathering in San Francisco in 2007. The combined cost to the Justice Department was $4,608.
Ms. Buchanan said none of her trips was for fun. She said she flew into Honolulu late at night, gave two speeches at the conference and took a red-eye flight home.
"I never got invited to a spa to talk about a light topic," she said. "Everything related to the work of the department and the U.S. attorney's office."
First Published June 27, 2010 12:00 am