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Can You Hear the Sucking Sound Coming from the Pentagon?

[ As the Pentagon budget grows, so does the waste: “employees have been reimbursed for tickets they didn’t purchase in the first place — reimbursed for tickets the government paid for” — to the tune of $8 million. And worse. –BL ]

$100 Million Wasted: While Some Soldiers Paid Their Own Way, Thousands of Pentagon Airline Tickets Went Unused

June 8, 2004 | ABCNEWS.com

by Lisa Stark and Michelle Stark

W A S H I N G TO N — The Department of Defense spent at least $100 million for airline tickets it did not use, a new congressional report found, even as some troops serving in Iraq were forced to dip into their own pockets to get home on leave.

The report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the unused tickets, purchased since 1997, were fully refundable, but the Pentagon never asked for a refund from the airlines. The report will not be released until Wednesday, but ABC News obtained a copy.

In just two years, 2001 and 2002, the Department of Defense bought 58,000 airline tickets that were never used, the report said. The trips were canceled or changed. The Pentagon brought another 81,000 tickets for trips that were only partially completed, it found.

“Millions of taxpayer dollars are just out and out wasted.” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “The department comes to us and asks for more money, money that it needs to prosecute the war and support our troops, and yet at the same time, the department is wasting money.”

Soldier Feels Let Down

As the government sat on millions of dollars in unused tickets, some soldiers on leave from Iraq were forced to pay part of their way home.

Staff Sgt. Chad Crandall of the North Dakota National Guard says he spent $405 in airfare in order to get home last October. His family could have used that money to help out with family expenses, he said.

“It kind of lets you down a little bit,” Crandall said, after hearing of the GAO findings.

His wife says the government has a responsibility to the troops.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Heidi Crandall. “My husband is over there fighting and there should have been money that he should have been able to come home with.”

Since that time the Pentagon has said it will reimburse the soldiers for this out-of-pocket expense, but Crandall says he has yet to see any of the money.

The GAO report also found that the Pentagon had no system in place to track unused tickets, and that it was totally unaware of the problem until the GAO audit.

In response to the report, a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement that the department “has taken action to require reconciliation between the tickets returned and the centrally billed account to ensure the DoD receives credit for each unused ticket canceled in the future.”

“We take this deficiency in our procedures very seriously and are moving swiftly to establish proper management controls,” the statement said.

In the long term, the spokesperson said, the Pentagon plans to implement an automated system, the Defense Travel System, to control travel orders and the payment process.

Questionable Payments Cost $8 Million

The waste doesn’t end with unused tickets, according to the GAO. A second report from the agency says accounting systems at the Pentagon are so poor that individual employees have been reimbursed for tickets they didn’t purchase in the first place — reimbursed for tickets the government paid for.

“There’s one case of a high-level federal employee who got reimbursed 13 times for airline tickets he did not pay for,” Collins said, “It looks like some of the employees are bilking the Department out of thousands of dollars.” She called it out-and-out fraud.

Congressional investigators uncovered 27,000 questionable payments to employees, costing an estimated $8 million.

The Defense Department says it is working to correct problems pointed out by the GAO reports. It says it will ask airlines for refunds where applicable, and force government employees who were wrongly reimbursed to give back the money.

The lapses cited in by the GAO report provide “further examples of DoD’s long-standing financial management problems, which are pervasive — and deeply rooted in virtually all business operations,” the second report said. It said the Pentagon remains on the government’s list for departments highly vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse.

Such problems would never be tolerated in the private sector, said George Wozniak, who runs a Hobbit Travel office, part of a large regional travel agency based in Minneapolis.

“If you have a business that requires you to have a lot of people travel, and you ran this operation this way, you wouldn’t be in business,” he said, “It’s such a sloppy way to do business that it really surprises me.”

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