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Legislators’ travel tabs often missing

10 lawmakers spent over half of $251,000 in total receipts

By GINGER GIBSON — Sunday, October 18, 2009

State lawmakers can travel when and where they want on the taxpayer’s tab.

Over the past three years, they have spent about $251,000 on conferences in places like Quebec City, Canada; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Boston; Nashville; Duck Key, Fla.; Las Vegas and New Orleans.

But how much they spend, and on what, can be hard to discover, especially in the House of Representatives.

An analysis by The News Journal of travel records for lawmakers during the past three years found that some records for House members were missing or illegible. For the House and Senate, the analysis found a lack of oversight about who can travel, where they can go and how much they can spend.

Travel receipts were made public for the first time after the General Assembly voted to follow the state’s open-government laws in May. But when the Legislature turned its records over to The News Journal, supporting documentation was missing for more than $12,000 in travel taken by several House members.

Despite repeated requests by The News Journal to produce the now-public documents, the Legislature’s controller general says the missing records may be lost forever.

Getting into a jet at taxpayers’ expense isn’t difficult in either chamber. In fact, no one interviewed for this article could recall a time when a travel request had been turned down. Former Rep. Roger Roy, who oversaw the travel budget for both chambers over several years, said he doesn’t remember the fund ever running out of money.

There are no rules on how much legislators can spend on a meal, a room or a rental car. The only prohibitions are that lawmakers cannot claim reimbursement for alcohol or expenses incurred by their guests.

Trip requests are reviewed by two fellow legislators who sit on the Interstate Cooperation Commission, a 10-member board that controls the General Assembly’s travel budget and multi-state pacts and agreements, such as the Delaware River and Bay Authority. Former House Financial Officer Carol Breslin often compiled lists of travel-seeking lawmakers and had the two commissioners approve them in bulk.

Legislators who travel say the trips help them stay on top of policy successes and failures around the country.

“It’s very important that we interact with lawmakers from other states,” said Senate Majority Leader Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, who didn’t spend state money on a conference during the three years analyzed by the newspaper. “The back-and-forth is key to understanding what works.”

But not everyone is sold on legislative travel.

“In the current economic environment, overseas and out-of-state travel for legislators is unacceptable,” said Republican Sen. Colin Bonini, who also spent no state money traveling. “We need to create a system of accountability when it comes to travel. We need to find a way to verify that people are working at these events.”

Because legislative staffers frequently purchase plane tickets for lawmakers, some of the travel money may not appear on a specific lawmaker’s tab. Still, over the past three years, 10 lawmakers accounted for more than half the General Assembly’s travel reimbursements:

Former Republican Rep. Donna Stone, $21,397; Republican Rep. Joe Miro, $16,109; Democratic Sen. David McBride, $14,464; Democratic Rep. Helene Keeley, $12,814; Republican Rep. Deborah Hudson, $12,355; Republican Rep. George Carey, $7,945; Republican Rep. Bill Oberle, $7,838; Democratic Rep. James “J.J.” Johnson, $7,213; former Republican Rep. Bob Valihura, $6,645; Republican Sen. Liane Sorenson, $6,507.

Stone, who was president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, frequently traveled in that capacity.

The expenses claimed vary widely. Many of the lawmakers traveled together, and most didn’t charge the state for meals outside the conference hotel. Miro asked for a convertible rental car at a gambling conference in Duck Keys and paid $56.50 for dinner in Chicago at Fogo de Chao, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse.

Miro said he has put in long hours at conferences conducting important state business. “If I had been the one to travel the most, I think my constituents have been blessed with the fact that I have been interested in sacrificing the time with my family.”

In three years, lawmakers claimed $14,000 for out-of-state meals. Former Republican House Speaker Terry Spence was a fan of McDonald’s breakfast, even when his colleagues were eating more expensive meals.

In 2007, five House members spent five nights at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to meet with leaders from states with legal gambling. The year before, several stayed at the Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort in Connecticut for a Council of State Governments conference.

Former Rep. Pam Maier requested reimbursement for even the smallest expenses she incurred at the 2007 National Conference of State Legislatures in Boston, when she spent $1,902.34, not counting the cost of a train ticket. It’s unclear how much the ticket cost, or who paid. Itemized claims she submitted included three bottles of water, one soda, a cup of coffee and two Arizona Teas.

The only check on House members’ spending came from Breslin, a Republican political appointee, who said she would question lawmakers and reduce reimbursements she thought were too large. In the Senate, employees in the clerk’s office, headed by Bernard Brady, an appointee of the Democrats, process travel reimbursements.

Breslin, who has retired, worked for Republicans for decades, until shortly after they lost control of the chamber last November.

“There were several legislators who complained I thought the money was mine,” she said.

State employees who travel at state expense face strict oversight, said Bert Scoletti, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. They can only request reimbursement up to the level allowed by the federal government.

The Government Service Agency prints an annual list of hotel and food costs for employees who travel at federal expense. The rates take into account regional economies, so a meal allowance in Wilmington is $39 a day compared with $64 a day in Chicago.

Not all states foot the bill when lawmakers travel. While neighbors Pennsylvania and Maryland are willing to pay for trips, New Jersey has a strict policy against travel expenses.

Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said regulations for state employees should be applied to lawmakers who travel. “We shouldn’t operate under different rules,” said Lavelle, who spent $357 to attend one conference over the past three years.

Making their travel records public should encourage legislators to self-regulate, he said.

Records missing

The News Journal asked for the travel records on June 15, the first Monday after Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation that subjected the General Assembly to the sort of transparency already required of other government agencies, city and county offices and school boards. Two and a half months later, the controller general’s office produced the records.

Comparing more than 300 pages of paper documents to electronic records of all transactions revealed that the controller general had omitted more than $17,000 in travel documents, including all of Spence’s records. The paper records were deemed lost by the controller general’s office and the House staff.

“I don’t know where they are,” Speaker Bob Gilligan, a Democrat who took over as head of the House after the last election, said last month.

Weeks later, after The News Journal filed a second request for the missing records, the House’s new financial officer, Lorraine Sexton, found some of Spence’s records in a trash can. Buried under a pile of paper were receipts for $5,375.69 in state-funded trips.

Sexton said she found Spence’s records while sorting through a pile of trash Breslin left to be shredded. Everything else in the box was trash.

Sexton, a political appointee picked by a bipartisan committee, was unable to locate documentation for another $1,060 that Spence spent.

The documentation for $12,632.22 worth of travel by members of the House still is missing. The Senate’s travel documents were complete.

Controller General Russ Larson’s office is responsible for most of the travel documentation because he oversees the Interstate Cooperation Commission’s budget.

After multiple reviews of the records, Larson’s office was unable to produce receipts for trips by Spence, Miro, Hudson, Oberle, Keeley, Rep. Ben Ewing, R-Bridgeville, Rep. Nancy Wagner, R-Dover, and Rep. Valarie Longhurst, D-Bear. Digital records indicated they had traveled and the total cost of each trip, but not what they spent the money on or where they went.

Spence said he has no idea how the records were lost.

“I’m not the one who handled the records, and there is no reason I would ask someone to destroy my travel records,” Spence said. “It sounds like I’m in Washington and not in little ol’ Delaware.”

Breslin couldn’t remember putting the records in the garbage. “If that was something I was trying to hide, believe me, it would have been gotten rid of, not left for someone to find.”

The Legislature spent about $51,000 on airline tickets over the three years examined by The News Journal. Most of the requests lawmakers make for travel reimbursements don’t include airline tickets because staffers purchase nearly all of the tickets on the same state credit card, rendering it nearly impossible to trace a specific purchase to one lawmaker.

The credit card record shows charges totaling $6,627 to Air Canada in 2007, the same year 17 lawmakers attended a three-day conference in Quebec City. In addition, Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, bought his own plane ticket for $579, for which he was reimbursed, and four others drove separately in their personal cars to Quebec from another conference in Boston, collecting about $450 each in mileage reimbursement.

The lack of clarity in records doesn’t end with plane fares.

Hard to read

Keeley paid $82 for dinner at a 2008 conference in Atlantic City, but there’s no way to be sure where she ate or whether the charge covered her alone. The only legible part of the receipt is the total.

Oberle was reimbursed for an $80 dinner on a 2007 trip to a Fraternal Order of Police conference in Louisville, but there’s no receipt with his travel documentation for the meal.

The only legible part of a document meant to explain $265 in expenses filed by Hudson for a 2005 conference at the Mohegan Sun are handwritten notations that she spent $19 on lunch and parked her car for $71.96.

Sexton said she saw the original copies of some of the documents, but the receipts were on glossy paper that faded quickly. Sexton said she intends to copy receipts in the future because copies are less likely to fade.

Marge Kilkelly, deputy director of the Council of State Governments Eastern Region, said that organizations like hers provide a crucial benefit to lawmakers.

They are able to meet and discuss issues facing multiple states, she said, citing the example of the federal government proposing to require a passport to travel between the U.S. and Canada. Because it affected so many states in the region, she said, lawmakers joined to lobby against the change and were able to stall implementation.

Members are criticized for traveling to some conference cities, like St. Thomas or Quebec City, but she said each region or state gets a turn to host.

Continuing education

Teresa Schooley, D-Newark, believes the trips provide critical insight on new initiatives.

“I look at it as continuing education for legislators,” she said. “We have continuing education that teachers have to do and lawyers have to do and doctors have to do. I think some of these conferences are continuing education for lawmakers.”

Still, according to the travel records, exotic and distant locales attract more Delaware lawmakers.

The 2007 Council of State Governments meeting in Quebec City was the most popular for Delaware lawmakers during the period surveyed. Seventeen legislators attended at a cost of $30,081, not including $6,000 in airfare charged to the state’s credit card.

In 2008, when the annual meeting was held in Atlantic City, 10 lawmakers attended at a cost of $6,012.27.

The second-most popular trip was when the National Conference of State Legislatures met for six days in Boston in 2007. Thirteen lawmakers spent nearly $17,000, not including the airfare. When a four-day meeting was held in Nashville in 2006, 10 lawmakers attended, costing taxpayers about $13,000, and four went in 2008 when it was held in New Orleans, costing $3,800.

This year, lawmakers shrank their travel budget — from $70,000 last year to $20,000 — along with the travel budgets of every other division in the state due to the economic downturn.

So when the NCSL conference was held in Philadelphia this year, six members — Schooley, J.J. Johnson, Reps. John Kowalko, D-Newark, Brad Bennett, D-Dover, Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington — attended on their own dime.

Last month, the Council of State Governments hosted a free leadership conference in Philadelphia for lawmakers and government employees in the Eastern Group.

About 25 government employees and lawmakers, some from Canada and Puerto Rico, sat in a small conference room for four hours listening to former Nebraska lawmaker David Landis explain the best negotiating tactics to reach compromises on heated issues.

Leah Jones, director of planning and policy for the Delaware Healthcare Commission, paid her travel expenses to Philadelphia. “It’s energizing to meet some of your counterparts,” Jones said.

She practiced a negotiating tactic with a lawmaker from Puerto Rico.

If she had wanted to practice with a Delaware lawmaker, she would have been hard-pressed. They skipped the conference in Philadelphia.