B-228696, Mar 10, 1988, 67 Comp.Gen. 328

B-228696: Mar 10, 1988

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Was denied lodging the first night at the selected hotel due to their overbooking. Such a certificate is the property of the Government and not the employee since the general rule is that a federal employee is obligated to account for any gift. Elizabeth Duplantier - Use of Bonus Lodging Certificates: This decision is in response to a request from the Director. The question concerns a HUD employee on temporary duty who was issued a bonus lodging certificate by a hotel which was overbooked and denied her lodging the first night of her travel. We hold that the bonus lodging certificate is the property of the Government and may not be used by the employee for personal travel. A group of HUD employees on temporary duty travel to New York City were denied lodging upon arrival at their hotel on the first night even though they had confirmed reservations.

B-228696, Mar 10, 1988, 67 Comp.Gen. 328

Civilian Personnel - Travel - Bonuses - Acceptance - Priority DIGEST: An employee, while traveling on official business, was denied lodging the first night at the selected hotel due to their overbooking. The hotel issued a bonus lodging certificate to the employee for one night of free lodging. Such a certificate is the property of the Government and not the employee since the general rule is that a federal employee is obligated to account for any gift, gratuity or benefit received from private sources incident to the performance of official duty. Also, allowing the employee to retain the certificate would result in double reimbursement to the employee since the Government paid for lodging at a substitute hotel that evening.

Elizabeth Duplantier - Use of Bonus Lodging Certificates: This decision is in response to a request from the Director, Office of Finance and Accounting, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for an opinion regarding the use of bonus lodging certificates given as compensation for denied lodging while on temporary duty travel. Specifically, the question concerns a HUD employee on temporary duty who was issued a bonus lodging certificate by a hotel which was overbooked and denied her lodging the first night of her travel. The employee subsequently used this certificate for lodging on one night of personal travel. The agency asks whether the bonus lodging certificate, granted because of denied lodging, can be used for personal travel or does it belong to the Government. For the reasons stated below, we hold that the bonus lodging certificate is the property of the Government and may not be used by the employee for personal travel.

BACKGROUND

During the period May 11 through May 17, 1987, a group of HUD employees on temporary duty travel to New York City were denied lodging upon arrival at their hotel on the first night even though they had confirmed reservations. In order to compensate for the overbooking, the hotel issued a bonus lodging certificate to each employee for one night of free lodging. All but one employee used the bonus certificate to cover the cost of lodging on one of the nights later in the week while still on official business.

Ms. Elizabeth Duplantier, Office of the Inspector General, Boston Regional Office, believed that the bonus certificate belonged to her since it was compensation for her inconvenience. Consequently, Ms. Duplantier used the bonus certificate to stay over one additional night in New York City for personal reasons.

By memorandum dated May 21, 1987, the agency notified Ms. Duplantier that, after reviewing the travel voucher she submitted for her trip, her travel costs were being reduced by $85 which represents one night's lodging at the hotel which issued the bonus lodging certificate. The agency stated that, since the certificate was issued to Ms. Duplantier while she was in official travel status incident to Government business, the agency believes the coupon should have been applied to a night's lodging while she was still in travel status later in the week.

By memorandum dated May 29, 1987, Ms. Duplantier requested that the agency reconsider its decision to reduce her travel voucher by $85. Ms. Duplantier questions the requirement that the bonus certificate be applied to official rather than to personal travel because she feels the certificate belonged to her insofar as it represented compensation for her inconvenience. She further stated that she believes her situation is analogous to a person giving up a seat on an airline and obtaining a free flight coupon. She notes that there is a Comptroller General decision holding that such a benefit accrues to the employee.

OPINION

Reimbursement of the necessary travel expenses of a federal employee on official business is a matter for payment from appropriated funds in accordance with the provisions of chapter 57 of title 5, United States Code, and the implementing regulations issued by the General Services Administration. Our Office has long held that a federal employee may not also be reimbursed from private sources for expenses incident to the performance of official travel, and any such payments tendered to the employee are viewed as having been received on behalf of the Government. See John B. Currier, 59 Comp.Gen. 95 (1979), and cases cited therein. See also Federal Travel Regulations, para. 1-1.6b (Supp. 9, May 14, 1984), incorp. by ref., 41 C.F.R.Sec. 101-7.003 (1987). The purpose for this is to avoid any conflict of interest, since it is fundamental that an employee must account for any gratuity received from private sources incident to the performance of official duty, and also to prevent double reimbursement to the employee for the same travel.

Thus, in Johnny Clark, B-215826, Jan. 23, 1985, we held that an employee may not make personal use of non-transferable bonus lodging points earned as a result of a combination of Government-funded and personal travel. Since the bonus points accumulated by the employee in Clark were acquired in part through the use of federal funds, any awards or benefits which accrued from the hotel's promotional program are the property of the United States and must be relinquished to an appropriate agency official. Moreover, we held in Clark that these bonus lodging points were non- transferable was of no consequence since, inasmuch as the points were the property of the Government, as the points were the property of the Government, the employee who received the lodging points has no more legal right to them than any other person.

We have also held that, where a federal employee travels on official business and is denied boarding on a scheduled airline flight, it is the Government that stands to be damaged by the airline's default in overbooking the flight and this payment must be turned over to the Government. See, Currier, supra.; 41 Comp.Gen. 806 (1962); Tyrone Brown, B-192841, Feb. 5, 1979. See also FTR, para. 1-3.5b. No exceptions have been permitted even where the Government incurs no additional subsistence expense or the employee reports for duty at the same time as originally intended.

However, we have allowed an employee to keep payments made by an airline for voluntarily vacating his seat on an overbooked airplane. Charles E. Armer, 59 Comp.Gen. 203 (1980); Edmundo Rede, Jr, B-196145, Jan. 14. 1980. We did so in part because the Civil Aeronautic Board (CAB) had just issued regulations to encourage airline passengers to voluntarily relinquish their seats. We reasoned that there was no double reimbursement and no conflict of interest. Allowing the employee to retain these voluntary payments is subject to certain conditions, however. If the employee incurs additional travel expenses by voluntarily relinquishing his seat, these expenses would be offset against the payment received by the employee. Also, employees should not voluntarily give up their seats if it will interfere with the performance of their official duties. Finally, to the extent the employee's travel is delayed during official duty hours, the employee would be charged annual leave for the additional hours. See Armer, above.

The situation in this case, however, differs from the exception for employees who voluntarily relinquish their seats on an overbooked airplane. Here, the bonus lodging certificate was received by the employee as a penalty payment by the hotel for failing to honor the employee's reservation, which was made incident to official travel. such, it is a benefit or item of value received from a private source incident to the performance of official duty, in the same manner as the denied boarding compensation in Currier, above. Hence, it falls within the general rule requiring the benefit to be turned over to the Government, since it is the Government which stands to be damaged by the hotel's failure to honor the reservation. To allow the employee to retain and use the bonus certificate for personal travel would constitute double reimbursement to the employee since the Government paid for the cost of her lodging at the substitute hotel that evening. Accordingly, we conclude that the bonus lodging certificate issued as denied lodging compensation is the property of the Government, and that Ms. Duplantier's voucher was properly reduced by the value of the certificate.