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Pentagon handed out $419 million in improper travel reimbursements last year

By Phillip Swarts

Thursday - 3/21/2013, 4:01pm  ET

During the recent sequester debate, the Pentagon was among the most vocal federal agencies in describing the potential impact of the automatic spending cuts that took effect March 1. It has not been as vocal, however, about another priority: complying with a law Congress passed three years ago to trim wasteful government spending.

While making improvements in some spending areas, the Defense Department was singled out this week for failing to trim unnecessary travel reimbursements. In fact, the Pentagon's internal watchdog concluded that wasteful travel spending actually grew last year to a total of $419.3 million, accounting for roughly five percent of the Pentagon's mammoth $8.4 billion travel budget.

"This occurred because authorizing officials’ reviews of travel vouchers were not adequate to prevent improper payments. As a result, improper payments increased in travel," the Pentagon inspector general said in a report that zeroed in on one area for big savings.

The inspector general said the most common problems with the payments were invalid signatures and dates, incorrect rates for meals, missing information on who was being paid and reimbursing lodging expenses without a receipt.  

"The DoD would not have made these improper payments if the authorizing/certifying official conducted an adequate review of the travel voucher prior to payment," the report said.

Other challenges in the Pentagon remain.  In fact, the inspector general found that $12.3 billion in spending was never reviewed for improper payments, and it's difficult to know how much of that might have been wasteful.

For failing to rein in improper travel payments, the Pentagon wins this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to examples of wasteful spending and mismanagement of taxpayer money.

Mark Easton, the Pentagon's Deputy Chief Financial Officer, agreed that despite "diligent implementation" of oversight, travel pay increased during 2012.  It's an area the Defense Department is focused on fixing, he said.

"The department has been working with the military services and defense agencies to tighten internal controls and improve training procedures for travelers and approving officials," Easton said.

The Pentagon wasn't alone in programs that have slipped through the cracks of the Improper Payments Act.  Investigators at the Environmental Protection Agency found the agency's "state revolving funds" designed to fund environmental improvement projects wasted about $13.38 million.  

The Agriculture Department wasted $74 million spread out over eight programs, investigators said, while the Health and Human Services Department's Child Care Development Fund improperly handed out $388 million.