Federal workers rack up nearly $8 million in travel costs

Posted at 2:31 PM, Aug 31, 2012
and last updated 2012-08-31 14:32:19-04

By Scott Zamost and Drew Griffin,

CNN Special Investigations Unit

(CNN) – The General Services Administration — already under scrutiny for excessive spending — spent $7.7 million over the past four years to transport hundreds of employees who work full-time from their homes to various government conferences and meetings across the country, according to records released this week by the federal agency.

The GSA is currently reviewing its so-called “virtual employee” program as part of a top-down review of all of its practices.

The GSA made headlines this year after a scathing inspector general’s report showed that it spent $823,000 on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas. Reports and video clips of the lavish conference sparked taxpayer indignation over the wasteful spending, the resignation of the GSA’s top leaders and a congressional investigation into the agency’s spending practices. Since then, reports of more wasteful spending at the government agency have surfaced.

The GSA released details of its virtual employee program this week acting on a request from congressional investigators. CNN also requested the information more than two months ago through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The GSA hired 379 virtual employees in an effort to save money by freeing up office space and reducing the agency’s carbon footprint. Under the program, the employees were not supposed to travel excessively. But the GSA’s records show that about 60% of the virtual employees traveled to conferences and meetings, mostly flying cross-country.

It’s not clear how the virtual employees’ travel costs compare with the travel costs of other GSA employees who work at designated offices.

Amid the congressional investigation, the agency has clamped down on all travel.

“Under the new GSA leadership, the agency has instituted rules to ensure that there is a strong business case for employees who work from home,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “It has to be cost-effective and create savings. GSA has also placed stringent controls to drastically curb spending on travel, conferences and events for all employees, including those who work from home full time.”

CNN requested details of the GSA’s virtual employee program after discovering that one of the employees assigned to the agency’s Kansas City, Missouri, office, was working from his home in Honolulu.

The business development specialist made 13 trips from Honolulu to the mainland United States in 2011 and 2012, racking up $32,694 in travel costs, according to the records. The GSA told CNN earlier this year that he had traveled nine times, with travel costs totaling $24,221.

The agency’s most frequent traveler was a project manager from Leawood, Kansas, who traveled to New York a total of 58 times in 2011 and 2012 at a cost of more than $99,000 to manage a construction project, the records show. The employee, who had been assigned to the GSA’s office in Washington, D.C., is no longer working for the agency, and no additional details are available, a GSA spokeswoman said.

The records also show that another virtual employee living in Miami and based out of the Washington, D.C., office racked up $143,881 in travel costs over four years. Another employee traveled back and forth from his home state of Washington to his District of Columbia office at a cost of $64,104.

In June, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, requested details about the cost of the GSA virtual employee program. That followed disclosures that 95 virtual employees, including 12 in supervisory positions, spent nearly $750,000 in travel costs between October 2010 and June 2011.

On Monday, GSA Associate Administrator Rodney Emery informed Issa that all agency officials have been given “more guidance on when a full-time telework agreement is appropriate, how to measure potential costs or savings under development, and details on a more rigorous approval process.”

The GSA said its clampdown on travel and conferences has saved $11 million over the past four months.

“Under the new leadership, travel costs for GSA employees including those who work from home is at its lowest in four years,” the agency said. “With stringent spending controls in place, the agency expects to realize millions more savings.”

The General Services Administration, which has more than 12,600 employees and a $26.3 billion budget, is a relatively obscure federal agency that handles government real estate and other non-military procurement.