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IG Faults DHS Conference Travel

In Crime, Politics on December 18, 2009 at 7:21 am

From 2005 through 2007, the Department of Homeland Security sent employees to 8,359 conferences around the nation and the world in 43,989 instances and didn’t do such a good job of keeping records and making sure that government travel policies were followed.

That’s the word from the department’s inspector general who released a report examining “DHS Conference Spending: Practices and Oversight.”

The IG determined that during that period, DHS spent approximately $110 million on conference related activities — about $60 million in direct costs and another $50 million in salary expenses for employees attending the conference.

While the IG said the news wasn’t all bad — many of the conferences are important opportunities for things like training, information sharing and mission support — they determined that “conference cost data did not contain sufficient supporting documentation, and were unreliable, unverifiable and provided little assurance that all conferences and related costs were tracked and accounted for properly.”

For instance, as part of the audit, the IG asked for 72 vouchers filed by employees who attended conferences. DHS was able to provide only 47 or 62%.

As a result, the IG wrote “we were unable to determine or verify the costs of conference related travel and travel reimbursements accurately because of deficiencies in supporting documentation.”

So, in some cases it appeared “individuals claimed and were reimbursed for meals they received at no cost.”

In another example, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee was reimbursed $206 for a taxi without a receipt when two other employees attending the same conference provided receipts that showed they paid $80 and $85 for the same taxi ride.

Additionally, two ICE employees flying to Singapore for a conference were reimbursed $8,654 and $7,207 for air fare despite no receipts or invoices being submitted and “much lower fares” being available, according to the report.

FEMA, at one point reimbursed one employee $176 for a canceled airline ticket and another $466 for duplicate lodging costs.

Perhaps most disturbing was the report mentioning that “a DHS official said there is no reason to track conference expenditures because there are no spending restrictions” and “another said there was no benefit to DHS components tracking conference expenditures, other than data call reporting to Congress.”

While the IG gives DHS some slack for being a somewhat unwieldy amalgam of nearly two dozen agencies, it concluded that the Department needs to work harder at developing uniform guidelines.

The IG included 12 recommendations in its report including: developing and adopting a department wide definition for what constitutes a conference ; revising conference planning and attendance policies and conducting a cost benefit analysis to determine the value of implementing a department wide conference management system to facilitate tracking, monitoring and reporting costs.

Susan Collins, the ranking minority member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that DHS should heed the IG’s advice.

“While some of this travel is related to essential training and exercise programs, the IG’s findings do not inspire confidence that the Department ensured careful stewardship of the taxpayers’ money,” she said. “The bottom line is clear: DHS must improve oversight of this spending to achieve the public confidence that the Department needs to accomplish its critical missions.”

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