DOJ Civil Rights Division Travel:

Division Strengthened Controls over Travel, but Additional Areas for Improvement Identified

GAO-16-58: Published: Nov 12, 2015. Publicly Released: Nov 12, 2015.

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What GAO Found

GAO tested the implementation of internal controls and compliance with key policies in nine areas of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Civil Rights Division (Division) travel authorization and reimbursement process for the period from October 2011 through June 2013 and found indications that controls functioned effectively in four of those areas. Weaknesses existed in the remaining five areas. Two of these weaknesses should be addressed by the design of a new travel system the Division began using in August 2013. Although the new travel system was in use during GAO's review, the Division had used the new system for too few trips for GAO to analyze its data. The four areas of travel in which the Division complied with policy and controls were generally functioning effectively included appropriate levels of per diem reimbursement, presence of required receipts, prior approval of higher-than-per-diem lodging, and appropriate length of trip for certain oversight activities (related to ensuring compliance with fair-housing laws). GAO identified weaknesses in three areas including the following:

  • GAO found that 16 percent of travel authorizations did not include documentation of approval prior to travel, contrary to DOJ policy, which could hinder the effective management of travel funds. Although unanticipated travel may require flexibility for travelers, strengthening controls to promote prior written authorization could help the Division better ensure that travel is necessary and funds are available.
  • GAO estimated that 14 percent of Division airfares were on noncontract carriers, and none of the eight highest cost vouchers in GAO’s sample had documentation of prior approvals as required by DOJ policy. The new DOJ travel system has controls designed to document approval of noncontract airfares but not if travelers book flights outside the system. The department has not yet evaluated whether this is occurring, yet doing so would confirm whether the new configuration of controls are functioning as intended.
  • GAO estimated that 42 percent of Division travel vouchers were not submitted within required time frames per DOJ policy, which could result in difficulties in managing travel funds.

Most Division travel charge card use appeared appropriate indicating effectively functioning controls and compliance with certain travel policies—for instance, more than 97 percent of purchases on Division travel cards aligned with evidence of official travel and appeared appropriate. GAO found three weaknesses related to travel card controls. First, cash advance transactions did not always comply with travel policies, as 19 percent of transactions did not align with evidence of official travel. Second, travel cards were not closed timely in 29 percent of cases reviewed. The Division has implemented new procedures since the start of GAO's audit, implementing new controls whose design should address these two issues. Third, the Division did not maintain documentation of communication with delinquent cardholders, a key component in addressing delinquent accounts. Without this documentation, the Division will not be able to determine whether staff are implementing this control, and thus, if delinquencies persist, it will be hindered in determining if the underlying cause is lack of implementation of this control or the need to strengthen controls or implement different processes.

Why GAO Did This Study

The sensitive nature of taxpayer-funded travel necessitates that federal agencies have strong internal controls in place to help ensure that travel complies with rules and regulations.

GAO was asked to review the Division's travel controls. This report examines the extent to which the Division effectively implemented internal controls and complied with travel policy in key areas, including appropriate (1) authorization and reimbursement of travel and (2) use of travel charge cards.

GAO analyzed Division travel data for all trips associated with investigations resulting in a court case and completed investigations not resulting in a court case (“closed investigations”), and travel charge card use from October 2011 through June 2013, the most recent data available at the time of GAO's data request. GAO did not analyze travel data associated with ongoing investigations. GAO also analyzed a generalizable sample of travel documents for 105 of the 3,157 trips within the period of its review. GAO also reviewed relevant federal and agency-specific travel rules and interviewed officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that the Division strengthen controls related to prior authorization of travel and timely submission of vouchers, evaluate whether new controls for noncontract airfares are functioning properly, and improve how it documents oversight of delinquent travel card accounts. The agency concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Seto Bagdoyan at (202) 512-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Division officials issued a December 2015 notice instructing employees that all travel must be approved in advance, and stating that the Division now requires approvals through email or other written documentation when there is insufficient time for approvals to be made through the travel system. The December 2015 notice also instructed Division employees that all vouchers must be submitted within 5 business days of return from travel, and provided information on reports to be provided to managers showing late vouchers as well as required actions by managers for vouchers that are 10 or more days late. According to the new process being implemented at the Division, managers are also required to report to the Comptroller, Human Resources, and the Office of Employment Counsel on the actions taken to address late voucher submission. Lastly, the Division developed a standard cover email that accompanies voucher delinquency reports sent to managers that includes instructions, as well as standard email language for management to send to delinquent employees. These actions should help strengthen internal controls over Division travel by better ensuring prior authorization of travel, and timely submission of travel vouchers.

    Recommendation: To strengthen controls over Division travel, and to better ensure that travel authorization and reimbursement comply with rules and regulations, the Attorney General should direct the Assistant Attorney General for the Division to strengthen existing or implement new internal controls over (1) documenting that travel is authorized in advance and (2) submitting travel vouchers in the required time frame.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Division officials report that they have evaluated the travel system and concluded that it has sufficient controls on use of non-contract fares with the exception of non-contract fares reserved outside of the system. To address this, the Division requested and obtained an update to the travel system so that, when flight reservations made outside of the system are pulled into the authorization, the supervisor can see whether a contract or non-contract fare was purchased and can authorize it as appropriate. Division officials also issued a December 2015 notice instructing employees that in the rare instances that a reservation cannot be pulled into the travel system, they must note whether a flight purchased was non-contract and provide evidence of prior approval. These actions should help strengthen internal controls over Division travel by better ensuring that noncontract airfare use is properly authorized and justified in accordance with travel rules.

    Recommendation: To strengthen controls over Division travel, and to help ensure that noncontract airfare use is properly authorized and justified in accordance with travel rules, the Attorney General should direct the Assistant Attorney General for the Division to evaluate whether the configuration of its new travel system has implemented controls to address previous shortcomings in obtaining and documenting required approvals, and that travelers booking airfares outside of the system are documenting this decision.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Division officials have taken several steps to address the recommendation and further strengthen oversight of travel card delinquencies, including providing managers with a standard set of instructions and expectations for addressing card delinquencies, and instructing employees on card delinquency processes and the requirement to pay their card regardless of the status of the travel voucher in a December 2015 notice. Also, Division officials provided instructions that documentation of steps taken to address delinquencies be sent to the Comptroller, who will maintain the emails received. In addition, the Division?s Office of Employment Counsel and the Office of the Assistant Attorney General will receive monthly reports of delinquencies to ensure that appropriate action is taken by management, and that delinquencies are corrected promptly and, where appropriate, disciplinary action is taken. These actions should help strengthen internal controls over Division travel by improving documentation of oversight of delinquent travel charge card accounts in accordance with DOJ policy.

    Recommendation: To strengthen controls over Division travel, and to better document oversight of delinquent travel charge card accounts in accordance with DOJ policy, the Attorney General should direct the Assistant Attorney General for the Division to take steps to maintain documentation of communications with delinquent travel cardholders.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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