The Government Accountability Office released an audit Thursday on a subject that strikes fear in the hearts of public officials - the use of taxpayer-funded private jets for personal travel. This audit focused exclusively on the travel of Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller. It was made at the request of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, after he received an allegation that the FBI's jets were being misused. The GAO concluded the allegation was not true.
The report did reveal that the flights are very expensive, however. From fiscal years 2007 through 2011, Holder, his predecessor Michael Mukasey, and FBI Director Robert Mueller flew 659 "non-mission" flights at a cost of $11.4 million. Sixty-one percent of the flights were aboard two of the FBI's most powerful and coveted jets, the Gulfstream V, which are deployed from a secret Washington, D.C.-area facility for sensitive operations around the globe. The plane can fly 6,000 miles without refueling and can shave hours off of commercial flight times.
According to the GAO, a presidential directive requires the attorney general and the FBI director to fly on government aircraft for vacation and other personal travel "because of their need for special protective security measures and secure communications while in flight." The officials must reimburse the government for the full-coach fare of their flights but these reimbursements are far less than the flight operating cost. For instance, when Holder flew to New York in November, 2010, the operating cost of the flight was $15,894, but the full coach fare was only $482.80, according to the GAO calculations.
Last month, Holder flew on the FBI's Gulfstream V to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, a trip that became public knowledge when fans spotted him and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the Superdome.
Holder's spokeswoman declined to provide details about the trip, including his airfare reimbursement, the length of his stay and that of his security detail, and who, if anyone went with him. A typical flight from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans takes three hours. Under the GAO's calculation of 2010 FBI plane costs, that is roughly $15,000 for a one-way trip.
Holder has been a frequent flier to New Orleans. Most of the travel has been for major Justice Department events, such as the November 2012, news conference to announce a $4 billion dollar settlement with BP from the gulf oil spill disaster and a July 2012, news conference to announce an overhaul of the New Orleans Police Department after decades of civil rights abuses.
But he announced that he is planning more private trips to the city because his eldest daughter is a student at Tulane University. When he gave a speech at Tulane Law School last year, Holder told the crowd: "I want all of you to know that I plan to become a familiar presence here at Tulane."
The GAO report landed on Justice Department desks on the same week that furlough notices were hand-delivered to all employees due to the automatic federal budget cuts that kick in today. In 30 days, they will start finding out if the furloughs will actually happen. It also follows a previous budget crisis edict from Holder himself in January 2011 instructing employees "to limit travel, training and conference spending to only those needs that are essential," according to the news release posted on the department's website.