D.C. Council members have spent more than $40,000 in taxpayer money to travel outside the region since early 2013, including expenses for a hotel room costing more than $500 per night.
A review by the News4 I-Team found the council lacks a system to ensure discount pricing or savings are sought for out-of-town travel.
The I-Team also learned the council secretary made zero formal requests to refuse pricey trip costs by council members or staff in 2013 or2014. The council secretary must formally approve council member and staff trip costs and reimbursements. Taxpayer watchdogs said the council’s travel system is lacking in oversight and is at risk of squandering taxpayer money.
The I-Team’s review of council travel during May 2013 and May 2014 revealed several D.C. Council members spent wildly different amounts of taxpayer money to attend a retail industry conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.
An I-Team review of expense reports found council members stayed separately at different Las Vegas resort hotels. Some secured hotel rates for less than $300 per night. Jack Evans, during his 2013 trip to the conference, reserved a room at the Wynn Resort, costing more than $700 per night. Muriel Bowser, who stayed in Room 3404 at the Trump Resort during her May 2014 trip, paid more than $500 for her room May 17 and May 18. The room, which Trump classifies as a “deluxe room,” cost about $400 May 19 and about $250 May 20. The Trump Resort’s “deluxe rooms” include floor-to-ceiling window views of the city and a European-style kitchen.
“There needs to be better planning by each council member,” said David Williams of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. “There needs to be common sense. Everyone must say we can get better rates and we can do better for the city.”
Bowser said her average room rate in Las Vegas was “not far off from the average cost of hotels” at the May 2014 event. She said hotel rates tend to be pricier during the days of the year in which the retail industry conference is staged.
Evans said his 2013 hotel room rate was too expensive. He said his office mistakenly waited too late to book the room and was subjected to a higher price because of it.
The I-Team’s investigation found other local government agencies are subject to stricter, more uniform travel policies, which encourage less expensive travel costs. Employees of the Washington, D.C., government’s executive agencies, those who are employed under the authority of the mayor, must file formal travel requests with the Office of the City Administrator. The administrator’s staff must approve the employees’ trips and review likely travel expenses.
A sample of internal emails exchanged by staffers of the Office of the City Administrator reveal agency staff instructing a city employee to detail and justify rental car costs for a government trip to Florida. Another set of emails show the Office of the City Administrator instructing another city to stay at a Ramada Inn during an official government trip, to help save money.
Montgomery County, Maryland, county council staffers and members are subject to county travel expense restrictions. The I-Team’s review found travel authorization must be given by a county administrator before employees can seek reimbursements for expenses.
Prince George’s County officials said their employees, including the county’s council members and executive staffers, are also subject to out-of-town travel restrictions.
“All official County Council business travel is booked through the Finance Division of Council Administration,” a county spokeswoman said. “For the Legislative Branch, a separate branch of the Prince George’s County Government, the council administrator is responsible for final approval of travel requests.”
The I-Team’s review of travel records shows Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker also attended the May 2014 retail conference in Las Vegas. Baker spent an average of $244 per night for his hotel room. D.C. Council members spent an average of $329 per night for hotel rooms at the same conference, according to the I-Team’s investigation.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the council should consider a program in which staffers and council members reserve “blocks” of hotel rooms while traveling out of town to ensure lower prices, and Mendelson said council members should consider staying at the same hotel while traveling.
“From the standpoint of council members developing better relationships with each other, it'd make sense for them to stay at the same place,” he said. “Plus, you wouldn't have disparities in rates."
Bowser said she too would support the creation of a group travel system for D.C. Council members.
“I don’t see anything wrong with exploring a system for traveling in blocks,” she said.