2016 Presidential Campaign:

Actions Needed to Address U.S. Secret Service Overpayments for Travel Costs

GAO-18-419: Published: May 30, 2018. Publicly Released: May 31, 2018.

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What GAO Found

The U.S. Secret Service's (Secret Service) travel expenses during the 2016 presidential campaign totaled approximately $58 million. Of the $58 million, $17.1 million was for reimbursements to the four campaign committees for chartered aircraft flights. In the case of campaign travel, Secret Service special agents often fly with protected individuals on aircraft chartered by the campaign committees. The Secret Service reimburses the campaign committees for the number of seats occupied by special agents on board each charter flight.

U.S. Secret Service Travel Expenses for the 2016 Presidential Campaign

U.S. Secret Service Travel Expenses for the 2016 Presidential Campaign

For the 40 overnight trips GAO reviewed, the Secret Service generally followed its policies and regulations for lodging payments. However, GAO found that the agency overpaid the campaign committees at least an estimated $3.9 million when reimbursing them for special agents' seats on charter flights. Since at least 1977, the Secret Service's policy has been to pay the lower of two fares when reimbursing campaign committees for special agents' travel on chartered aircraft flights. Specifically, the Secret Service is to pay the lower of the following two fares: the lowest commercially available first-class airfare, or the pro rata fareā€”the cost of the agent's seat on the charter flight calculated by taking the total cost of the charter divided by the number of passengers on board. However, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Secret Service officials misinterpreted a Federal Election Commission regulation, and as a result, did not conduct the comparison. Instead, the Secret Service solely paid the pro rata fare to the campaign committees. Eight months before the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, Secret Service officials determined the interpretation was erroneous, but did not ensure the agency reverted to its long standing policy. During these 8 months, 66 percent of all campaign-related flights with special agents on board were taken.

Federal agencies are generally required to collect on debts that have been determined by an appropriate official of the federal government to be owed to the United States. Debts include overpayments. Pursuing debt collection, however, will require the Secret Service to calculate the specific amount it overpaid to the campaign committees and determine how to proceed with seeking repayment from the various committees, as appropriate.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Secret Service incurs millions of dollars in travel expenses to provide security during the fast-paced operational tempo of a presidential campaign. In connection with the 2016 presidential campaign, the Secret Service provided protection for four presidential candidates, two vice presidential candidates, and six of the candidates' family members.

GAO was asked to review the Secret Service's travel-related expenses for the 2016 presidential campaign. This report examines (1) how much the Secret Service incurred in travel-related expenses, and (2) the extent to which travel-related payments and reimbursements were made in accordance with laws, regulations, and policies. GAO analyzed Secret Service data to determine the travel expenses incurred by the agency for the 2016 presidential campaign. GAO also randomly selected 40 overnight trips to assess the Secret Service's compliance with provisions of its lodging policies and the Federal Travel Regulation. GAO analyzed the Secret Service's payments to campaign committees to determine whether committees were reimbursed the correct amounts for charter flights.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations, including that the Secret Service should (1) calculate its overpayments to the campaign committees for special agents' seats on chartered aircraft flights, and (2) determine how it should proceed with respect to collecting on identified debts. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with the recommendations and identified actions underway to address them.

For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or maurerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2018, we reported on the U.S. Secret Service's (Secret Service) travel costs for the 2016 presidential campaign. During the course of our review, we found that the Secret Service had misinterpreted a Federal Election Commission regulation and overpaid four campaign committees at least an estimated $3.9 million when reimbursing them for special agents' seats on charter aircraft flights. Consequently, we recommended that Secret Service calculate the amounts of its overpayments and determine how to proceed in collecting these debts. In July 2018, the Secret Service provided us copies of letters it sent to each of the four campaign committees that include the amounts the Secret Service determined were overpaid to the committees and seek repayment to the agency. By calculating the amounts of overpayments and then taking action to collect, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: Consistent with the federal debt collection authorities as provided in 31 U.S.C. chapter 37, the Director should complete the process of calculating the amounts of its overpayments to the campaign committees for special agents' seats on chartered aircraft during the 2016 presidential campaign, and determine how it should proceed with respect to collecting on identified debts. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Secret Service

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that the Secret Service ceased to adhere to its longstanding reimbursement policy and overpaid campaign committees for special agents' seats on charter flights. In addition, we found that this change was not fully reviewed or vetted as required by the agency's directive on policy revisions. To help ensure that these changes are reviewed or vetted in the future, we recommended that the Director of the Secret Service require in policy and practice that the directives control point be notified when the Office of the Chief Counsel provides advice to offices that is likely to result in policy changes. As of July 2018, Secret Service has developed a policy calling for the Office of the Chief Counsel to notify the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy's directives control point in circumstances in which legal advice or opinion that is likely to result in policy changes is provided. While this action partially addresses our recommendation, it remains open as we monitor the Secret Service's implementation of this policy in practice.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the agency's existing directive on policy revisions is followed, the Director should require in policy and practice that the directives control point be notified when the Office of the Chief Counsel provides advice to offices that is likely to result in policy changes. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Secret Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During the course of our review, Secret Service officials told us that the operational tempo during the presidential campaign may have resulted in its failure to adhere to the Secret Service's directives and policies. We recommended that the Director assess its existing control activities and implement appropriate mechanisms to help ensure compliance with the agency's travel cost policies during presidential campaigns. As of July 2018, the Secret Service has implemented mechanisms to address our recommendation, such as quarterly audits to help ensure reimbursements comply with policies. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: The Director should assess its existing control activities and implement appropriate mechanisms to help ensure compliance with the agency's travel cost policies during presidential campaigns. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Secret Service

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During the course of our review, we found that 20 of the 76 invoices submitted during the 2016 presidential campaign had incomplete or inaccurate information and should have been returned to the protectee for correction or completion in accordance with Secret Service policy. We found that agency officials were not clear on who was to conduct a review of the invoices and receipts, and that a secondary review of this information was not required in policy. As a result, we recommended that the Director of the Secret Service update the charter aircraft reimbursement policy to assign the offices responsible for verifying that all calculations done by the campaign committees are accurate, and require a secondary review process prior to making payment. As of July 2018, the Secret Service has revised its charter aircraft reimbursement policy to require that the Logistics Resource Center review and approve invoices from campaign committees, and that the Financial Management Division conduct a secondary review. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: The Director should update the charter aircraft reimbursement policy to assign the offices responsible for verifying that all calculations done by the campaign committees are accurate, and require a secondary review process prior to making payment. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Secret Service

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During the course of our review, we found that Secret Service's policy on reimbursement of special agents' seats on chartered aircraft lack important details to ensure that its travel agency can accurately identify first-class airfares and make accurate reimbursements. For example, we found that while the policy requires the protected individual to provide the three-letter airport code for flight segments, it does not specify that the three-letter code needs to be the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and not the Federal Aviation Administration code, which can result in identifying the wrong airport when determining airfares. We recommended that the Director of the Secret Service update the charter aircraft reimbursement policy to specify that protected individuals provide IATA codes and copies of the charter companies' invoices, and that its travel agency is to include taxes when providing the lowest available first-class airfares. In July 2018, Secret Service provided us with its updated policy, which requires that protected individuals provide copies of the charter companies' invoices and IATA airport identification codes. In addition, the revised policy requires that taxes be included in the lowest available first-class airfares provided by the Secret Service's travel agency. Based on the policy revisions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: The Director should update the charter aircraft reimbursement policy to specify that protected individuals are to provide the International Air Transport Association codes and copies of the charter companies' invoices, and that the Secret Service's travel agency is to provide lowest available first-class airfares that include taxes. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Secret Service

 

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