A high-flying attorney general
The next time you are standing in a security line at the airport in your stocking feet, holding up your belt-less pants, spare a moment to ponder how the other half lives. The case we have in mind is the comfortable, but murky, travel situation of the U.S. attorney general.
If any agency of the federal government should be fully transparent about its activities and their costs, it's the Justice Department. And scant weeks after taking office in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder underlined this point in a memorandum on how "a presumption of openness" should guide the nation's "fundamental commitment to open government," in responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
But when Bloomberg News sought information in 2012 on travel by Attorney General Holder from Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011 (Fiscal Year 2011), it took more than a year for Justice to respond.
Bloomberg reported that Mr. Holder had used an FBI jet for personal trips to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and New York City, but had reimbursed the government the required commercial economy fare.
Also according to Bloomberg, a flight to New York on Nov. 13, 2010, cost the taxpayer $15,894, for which Mr. Holder paid $420.80.
The Government Accountability Office has also been looking into travel by top officials of the Justice Department, and has found some interesting things about the use of the FBI's three top-end executive jets, two Gulfstream Vs and one Citation X.
The aircraft were purchased to support FBI criminal and counter-terrorism missions. But the comfortable Gulfstreams appear to be used mostly by the attorney general and the FBI director for what the government calls "non-mission" flights - going to conferences, inspection trips and other administrative travel - and for personal trips.
As it happens, the attorney general has been required by presidential order to use government transportation even for personal trips since 2005. The order was applied to the FBI director in 2011. The idea was to improve personal security and ensure safe communications.
Three attorneys general who held office successively during a 60-month period from 2007 to 2011 used FBI aircraft, mostly the two Gulfstreams, for 151 personal trips, the GAO found. Two out of every five trips taken by the attorneys general during this period were personal, not government business.
The FBI director, on the other hand, rarely made personal trips.
It is hard to reconcile the figures reported by the GAO with the figures obtained by Bloomberg, which only reported 9 personal trips for Attorney General Holder in fiscal 2011. Digging deeper, however, the GAO recently found that the FBI had not reported 395 "non-mission" trips to the General Services Administration, which is responsible for keeping tabs on travel by top federal executives.
Figures for travel by Mr. Holder and the FBI director are an apparent mess of inconsistent and unrevealing data with large gaps.
The attorney general, who is the administrator of the FOIA, should do a better job of untangling the data and making them public.
And the public should ask why Mr. Holder has what looks like his own executive jet as a job perk.