Travel Practices:

Use of Airline Bonus Coupons and Privately Funded Travel by AID Employees

NSIAD-86-26: Published: Nov 29, 1985. Publicly Released: Dec 20, 1985.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Agency for International Development's (AID) procedures for: (1) controlling and using promotional materials such as bonus flight coupons in conjunction with official travel; and (2) avoiding conflicts of interest in connection with official travel funded by private sources.

The major U.S. airlines have instituted frequent-flyer programs which entitle a person who travels regularly to obtain coupons or accumulate points for bonus travel. However, in a 1981 decision, GAO held that bonus flight promotional awards, which federal employees receive while travelling on official business, cannot be retained since they belong to the government. GAO found that there has been confusion and controversy surrounding the earning, ownership, and use of these awards, and agencies have been slow in developing guidelines and communicating the requirements to their employees. Since the airlines do not provide government agencies with information on what federal employees earn while on official travel, it is difficult to verify that all of the promotional materials earned are turned in to the agencies. Federal employees may accept payment from private sources for travel expenses incurred in carrying out official duties when: (1) it is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization; and (2) it is paid from a nonfederal source on the agency's behalf. However, under both circumstances, payment of travel expenses should not be accepted if it would pose conflict-of-interest problems. AID recently issued guidelines which require prior written approval for such a trip from the employee's manager and a General Counsel determination that acceptance would not create an apparent conflict of interest. However, since over half of recent privately funded AID trips were not submitted to the General Counsel, GAO believes there is a need to further emphasize its importance.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: AID issued bills of collection to the five employees involved. The employees appealed the collection action to the Comptroller General (CG). In November 1987, CG denied the appeals, stating that the employees are liable for the full value of the tickets. In March 1988, one employee reimbursed AID for the value of his ticket. AID plans to reissue bills of collection to the other four employees.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, AID, should recover the value of the trips made by five AID employees using bonus airline coupons for unofficial travel or travel by their spouses.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: AID issued detailed guidance on procedures to be followed by employees before accepting payment of travel expenses from private organizations. Employees are awaiting General Counsel approval before accepting payment of travel expenses from private organizations.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, AID, should emphasize to AID employees and authorizing officials the importance of implementing newly established procedures for avoiding potential conflict of interest situations. In particular, employees and officials should be reminded that General Counsel approval must be obtained before offers by nonfederal sources to pay travel expenses are accepted.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended by GAO, the General Counsel is revising and signing off on travel authorizations involving privately funded travel.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, AID, should instruct the General Counsel to sign off on travel authorizations where expenses will be paid by private sources as evidence of the conflict of interest review.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In a GAO follow-up review, GAO did not identify additional instances where travel was performed without authorization. GAO believes that the previously identified instance was an isolated occurrence and, therefore, it is dropping this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, AID, should instruct AID employees to obtain travel authorizations for all trips involving official business, even where there is no cost to AID. Employees should be instructed to keep records of time spent on official business when trips combine business and pleasure, and to seek reimbursement from appropriated funds for expenses incurred while performing official business.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

 

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