House passes bill ordering NASA to cut first class travel, 'promptly' correct errors

Premium trips cost from $3,000 to over $10,000

WASHINGTON, D.C. - NASA must outline for Congress a plan to reduce its purchases of costly first- and business-class airfares and promptly correct widespread accounting errors in its travel records, according to a bill passed Friday by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The orders follow a Congressional hearing last month at which NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was questioned by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) about apparent “massive overuse” of premium class air tickets, including trips first publicized by Scripps News.

Records released to Scripps through the Freedom of Information Act show NASA approved one-way premium upgrades costing anywhere from  $3,000 to more than $10,000 per trip on 515 occasions over four years, totaling more than $3 million.

In a March interview with Scripps, NASA chief financial officer Elizabeth Robinson acknowledged “widespread” problems with the accuracy of records the space agency is required to disclose annually, detailing premium ticket upgrades. The problems date back at least five fiscal years, she said. Robinson also acknowledged the agency’s failure to file any report during the 2012 fiscal year.

Federal employees are required to fly coach for both domestic and international trips unless agencies can justify upgraded travel from among a few exceptions, for example a trip lasting longer than 14 hours. But regulations also say government travelers flying at taxpayer expense must use the same spending restraints as “a prudent person would exercise if traveling on business.”

Some agencies have virtually eliminated premium travel except in a handful of cases. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which conducts extensive foreign travel, has banned it outright, and says the cost savings have allowed it to take more international trips and provide better oversight of government projects.

All federal agencies are required to file annual disclosures of ticket upgrades.

The legislation singles out NASA less than two months after Bolden provided  inaccurate sworn testimony about his own upgraded  travel.

During an April 8 hearing of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies,  subcommittee chair Wolf expressed concern about NASA’s use of premium travel described in news reports.

Questioned by Wolf about one of his reported trips -- a $1,641 one-way first-class flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles in June 2010, that NASA records said typically costs less than $200 to travel coach --  Bolden testified, “I don’t travel first class.”

Prior to the hearing, the space agency confirmed that trip to Scripps along with other upgraded flights Bolden took. One was a $16,515 one-way business class flight from Beijing to Washington, D.C., that NASA reported as costing less than $1,000 for an average priced coach fare. Following the hearing, Bolden declined to answer questions about those trips. Hours later, a NASA spokesperson acknowledged the flights had occurred and called Bolden’s incorrect testimony an “inadvertent oversight.”

NASA has denied Freedom of Information Act requests from Scripps seeking internal emails and related correspondence about premium travel, saying no “public interest” has been established in the information requested.

The legislation, approved by the House and excerpted below, requires that within 90 days of the bill becoming law, NASA provide Congress a report describing steps the agency has taken to reduce premium travel in fiscal year 2014 and in future years.

Several recent media reports have called into question NASA’s use and oversight of premium air travel. Among the issues cited in these reports are errors or omissions in required oversight reporting; unclear justifications for the use of premium tickets in certain instances; and the rate at which NASA appears to authorize premium travel relative to other agencies. NASA shall take all necessary steps to promptly rectify any problems in its Premium Class Travel Reports over the past five fiscal years and provide corrected information to the General Services Administration and the Committee as soon as possible. In addition, NASA shall report to the Committee on steps it has taken to reduce the use of premium travel (including travel that would be deemed permissible by Federal travel regulations) in fiscal year 2014 and future years. That report shall be provided no later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act.

The requirements are included as part of a larger appropriations bill that will fund the nation’s Commerce, Justice, and Science agencies during fiscal year 2015.

That bill, with the provisions for NASA attached, now heads to a conference committee with the Senate and is expected to be signed into law by the President sometime this fall.

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