ATLANTA —Three top officials at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to travel the world, appearing on panels or attending receptions and ceremonies.
Records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the federal Freedom of Information Act, show that in the past five years the three made numerous trips to places such as Indonesia, Botswana, Bangkok, Budapest and El Salvador. The tab for their national and international travel during that time totaled more than $738,000.
"All of our travel conforms to the Federal Travel Regulations and advances FLETC's mission to train those who protect the homeland," said retiring FLETC director Connie Patrick. "We make every effort to be as efficient as possible with government travel dollars."
But a spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste said the spending seemed excessive and more investigation and oversight are needed.
"There is no doubt the taxpayers need to know if money's being squandered," said Curtis Kalin, spokesman for the Washington-based government watchdog group.
At least two congressional oversight committees are investigating the travel as well as asking why the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FLETC, is not moving quicker to investigate whistleblower reports of abuse and over-spending.
"Whistleblowers have contacted my office alleging improper travel and wasteful spending by senior staff at FLETC," said U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "The IG is currently examining the allegations and I look forward to the conclusion of its investigation. In the meantime, my committee will continue its oversight efforts to help ensure taxpayer money is not wasted."
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is also investigating. The two committees also are looking at claims the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FLETC, is slow-walking its response to numerous whistleblower reports.
According to records obtained by The AJC, Patrick has spent almost $288,000 on domestic and international travel since Jan. 1, 2012. During that same time, assistant director Dominic Braccio's travel cost taxpayers more than $276,000. And Dana O'Quinn, who was FLETC's communications and protocol director but has been temporarily reassigned, spent almost $174,000 on domestic and international travel over five years.
Kalin said it appears that money was wasted and it was "highly problematic and does a disservice" to taxpayers.
The three FLETC officials took a total of eight trips to Singapore, seven trips to Bangkok, five trips to El Salvador and four trips each to Lyon, France; Budapest, Hungary; and Lima, Peru. They went to Canada, Monaco, Indonesia, Germany, Scotland and South Africa. All three went to Rome at the same time in 2012 as U.S. delegates to an Interpol meeting. And they also went to Sydney, Australia, in 2014, for another Interpol meeting.
In between, there were taxpayer-funded trips to U.S. cities. Washington; Seattle; Las Vegas; New York; Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; and Charleston, S.C. were among the destinations.
The most expensive trip was in 2015, when Patrick went to Singapore for 10 days to attend the opening ceremony and a workshop at the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation. The cost: $17,402. Four months later, she spent another $17,000 to go back to Singapore for four days to discuss "Interpol training activities," records show.
Though much of the public is unaware of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at the former Glynco Naval Air Station near Brunswick, it is where most federal law enforcement officers are trained. FLETC also has training facilities in South Carolina, Maryland and New Mexico, and it provides instructors for training programs for Interpol and at the International Law Enforcement Academy programs in Botswana, Hungary, Thailand and El Salvador.
Braccio said the agency uses video teleconferencing but it "is not always an option or permissible. Occasionally, it is necessary for leadership to travel personally to establish relationships and carry out the FLETC mission."
Records show the trips Patrick, Braccio and O'Quinn took were as short as two or three days and as long as two weeks.
Sometimes domestic trips to appear on a panel or attend a reception involved three or four days of travel.
For example, earlier this year Patrick spent three days in Washington, at a cost to taxpayers of almost $1,600, to attend a retirement reception for a U.S. senator and to go to DHS secretary's awards ceremony. In September, Patrick was in Washington for three days for a "welcome ceremony" for the Department of Interior's Conservation Chief's Academy and to meet with two other officials; the cost was more than $1,400. Patrick went to Washington in April 2016 for a meeting and a banquet; the cost was more than $2,300.
O'Quinn spent almost $1,000 last September "to support director Patrick's attendance at a DHS ceremony to mark the federal government's return to One World Trade Center." A June 2016 eight-day trip to Singapore so O'Quinn could "support the FLETC" at a training program cost taxpayers more than $10,000. Another trip to Singapore in April 2015 to attend a workshop and "Asian regional conference" cost another $10,000.
Braccio went to Bali, Indonesia last November for a meeting with Interpol, a trip Patrick also took. Braccio's travel costs totaled almost $14,000 and Patrick's' more than $14,400 (which included a stop in Orlando).
Whistleblowers first contacted the inspector general about the travel spending two years ago and some reached out to the oversight committee to express their concern that their reports of "wasteful spending, noncompliance with procedures, improper travel and prohibited personnel practices" are not being investigated, according to the letter the chairmen of the committees —Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah —wrote in a letter to the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, John Roth.
Whistleblowers complained that FLETC officials would fly first class and stay at top-tier hotels that cost much more than the federal government allows.
FLETC said congressional budget disputes and "potential budget interruptions" meant officials often couldn't book travel until the last minute. The spokesperson also said government contract airfare is often more than what other travelers might pay and the Fly America Act requires government employees to use U.S.-based airlines "even if their prices are more expensive."
Patrick, who is retiring June 30 at age 62, said the travel was in line with the agency's mandate and agreements with other countries to train law enforcement to address terrorism, human and drug trafficking, child exploitation and organized crime, and the arrests had been made as a result.
"Our travel forges partnerships to advance this mission," Patrick said.
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