Commerce Department's high travel expenses probed Confidential audit reveals misuse of credit cards

January 21, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Under Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, travel expenses for the secretary's office have risen at least 145 percent over those of a well-traveled GOP predecessor, while many of Mr. Brown's aides are improperly using government credit cards for personal purchases, according to a confidential audit report obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The report by the Commerce Department's inspector general also criticizes Mr. Brown for supplementing his travel budget with millions of dollars that Congress intended for other purposes.

In addition, it questions the department's practice of paying in advance the expenses of nongovernment workers who travel as "consultants" for the administration. It notes that $360,000 owed from travel advances to these private citizens has not been repaid.

The report, which calls into question Mr. Brown's financial management of the Commerce Department, comes in the wake of the controversy over excessive travel spending by Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary.

Mr. Brown is under investigation by a court-appointed independent counsel on a variety of charges unrelated to his travel expenditures -- most of them involving his personal finances.

His spending levels are particularly striking because he took over the job from a Republican administration that was often under fire for high travel costs. The travels of Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., commerce secretary in the Bush administration, were often questioned by Democrats in Congress.

Like Mr. Mosbacher, Mr. Brown was accused by critics of using his travel budget to gain favor with political allies and party contributors, many of whom have been invited to join him on trips.

Carol Hamilton, Mr. Brown's press secretary, said the increased spending reflects Mr. Brown's determination to promote U.S. business more than his predecessors had.

At the same time, she said, the department has taken steps to clamp down on the misuse of credit cards and to eliminate other problems cited by the auditors.

Judging from expense reports obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Brown's costs have risen in part because he makes numerous domestic and foreign trips. But records show that he takes a large entourage with him.

Overall, according to the audit, travel by Commerce Department employees cost the taxpayers nearly $68 million in 1994, exceeding its budget by about 55 percent.

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