Flying High -- On Your Dime

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
My report tonight is about federal workers abusing the system by upgrading flights improperly at taxpayer expense.

Who wouldn't want to fly first class or business instead of coach? While I can empathize with the desire to have the space and the pampering of so-called "premium" class flights, it's a hugely expensive luxury, one that federal rules say taxpayers should not ordinarily be financing. Under federal rules, because taxpayer funds are not unlimited, agencies are required to do what they can to operate as efficiently and prudently as possible. That means strict limits on premium class flights. They're allowed only under special circumstances: certain flights over 14 hours, medical exceptions, etc.

What General Accountability Office investigators found when they probed this issue was one federal agency after another is flouting the rules. The blatant disregard is evident in trips whereby officials are having their secretaries or other subordinates "authorize" the upgrades, medical notes are signed by co-workers instead of a real doctor and aren't current, and more.

It all adds up. Premium flights are five to ten times more expensive than coach, and the GAO says one year's worth of abuse alone added up to $146 million.

Watch for that to change now that the GAO is issuing its findings. When Senator Norm Coleman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations asked the GAO to track down travel abuse in the Defense Department in 2003, the Pentagon managed to reduce the amount of tax dollars pent on premium class flights by two-thirds.

I asked investigators whether federal workers who took the unauthorized upgrades could be forced to pay back the money. The answer is: yes. For example, the Agriculture Department employee who should've flown coach to Switzerland for $900, but took a business class seat for $7,500, could be told to repay $6,600. But don't hold your breath. Here's why. The agencies themselves have been allowing the widespread abuse, including by some executives, and aren't likely to hold the workers accountable. And if Congress tried to do so, Senators and Representatives know they would be making immediate enemies of tens of thousands of high-flying federal workers, and their spouses and families. Lots of the abusers would have trouble coming up with thousands of dollars -- in some cases TENS of thousands of dollars to pay back the government.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.