MDOT Officials Travel World On Taxpayers’ Money

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Mississippi’s Department of Transportation leaders are among the state’s most well-traveled government officials, with two of the four having traveled overseas, at taxpayer expense, nearly as much as the governor over the past four years, including trips to Budapest, Vienna, Brussels, Puerto Rico and Cancun.

They don’t appear to spare expense at home or abroad, submitting bills from such top-drawer hotels as the Ritz-Carlton, L’Enfant Plaza, Washington Court and Beau Rivage, with room rates as high as $457 a night in one instance. While not required by state rules to submit receipts proving meal expenses, the officials usually receive food reimbursement, as much as $90 a day records show, even when attending events whose programs indicate meals are provided.

Records and data obtained by The Sun Herald from MDOT and the state Department of Finance and Administration show that MDOT’s three elected commissioners and appointed director charged taxpayers $207,000 for travel over about four years.

Of the four MDOT leaders, elected Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown and appointed agency Director Butch Brown account for the lion’s share of the taxpayer-funded travel. Butch Brown spent at least $80,000 and Wayne Brown $69,000.

The MDOT leaders’ travel included in-country trips to Key West; San Francisco; Walt Disney World; Cape Cod; New York City; Branson, Mo.; Opryland and many other locales.

The money paid by taxpayers doesn’t account for all the officials’ travel. Many trips for MDOT officials are funded by road-building industry groups, whose member businesses depend on lucrative state road construction contracts approved by MDOT leaders.

The appearance of such perks provided by the industry has prompted Alabama’s Department of Transportation to institute a policy that all ALDOT officials attending such conferences pay their own way.

MDOT leaders say their travel is all work-related and necessary to their jobs. MDOT is charged with overseeing state transportation, primarily the building and maintenance of state and federal roadways in Mississippi. They say they don’t see any ethical problem with construction companies or equipment and material suppliers paying for them to travel and dine.

Butch Brown and Wayne Brown said a European trip they took _ at a cost of about $7,000 to taxpayers _ with stops in Brussels, Budapest and Vienna, was to study how rivers and ports in those areas are used for moving cargo.

State Rep. Michael Janus, R-Biloxi, said he was shocked to learn that Butch Brown and Wayne Brown have been traveling abroad, and questioned whether it was necessary to their taxpayer-funded jobs.

“Overseas travel is a bit over the top,” Janus said. “In the instance of Budapest, I’m sure there’s plenty to see in Hungary, but advanced road-building techniques is probably not one of them.

“I know these gentlemen have a difficult job and everyone deserves a vacation, but not at taxpayers’ expense,” Janus said.

ALDOT Director Joe McInnes, Butch Brown’s counterpart in Alabama, said his agency has implemented policies that require those who travel to write reports proving the trips provided direct benefit to their jobs. He said this requirement has greatly curtailed travel. McInnes said he seldom travels at taxpayer expense.

In its response to the Sun Herald’s requests for public records, MDOT didn’t supply all the officials’ expenses for airfare, which is sometimes booked through a travel agent then charged to MDOT. An MDOT attorney assigned to deal with the newspaper said some such expense records are “buried” in files at the agency and it would be difficult and expensive to dig them out. DFA said the totals it supplied the newspaper include airfare.

Some lawmakers and other leaders have in the past argued that Mississippi’s oversight of government travel is lax and needs reform, but most reform efforts have failed.

The state’s travel manual instructs government employees to treat their travel expenses as if they were their own.

“An employee traveling on official state business is expected to exercise the same care incurring expenses as would a prudent person traveling for personal reasons,” the manual says. “Travelers shall request air, bus, hotel and vehicle rental reservations as far in advance as possible and shall utilize the lowest logical rate available.”

But some of the MDOT leaders’ expense records raise the question of whether they are following this guideline.

Butch Brown’s expense reports show he attended a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., staying at the upscale Washington Court Hotel. Brown’s rate for two nights was $286 a night, but he stayed a third night at a rate of $457.

Records also show Butch Brown recently charged taxpayers $1,089 for a round-trip flight from Jackson to Atlanta. Brown said the flight was not first-class, and only he was traveling. He said he often has to make last-minute travel arrangements and can’t always get the best rates.

Sometimes, even MDOT’s in-state travel can be a bit pricey for taxpayers. Northern District Commissioner Bill Minor reported expenses for two nights at the Beau Rivage for more than $223 a night for a convention, records show, while some others attending reported no lodging costs. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who of the four MDOT officials cost taxpayers the least at $12,600 over four years, said officials most often stay at the hotel where an event is being held because it’s convenient and they usually get a discounted rate.

“You might stay at the Days Inn, I would agree, but the conference is not going on at the Days Inn, it is going on at the Marriott,” Hall said. “If I was traveling on personal business I would probably stay at the Days Inn.”

Food reimbursements _ which require no receipts as proof of expenses _ also raise questions whether at least some of the MDOT officials are trying to travel on a budget, or keeping a close accounting.

On a trip to Puerto Rico for a conference, food expenses appear to have varied greatly between the four MDOT officials, who stayed different amounts of days. Wayne Brown, who stayed for eight days, reported spending exactly $91 a day on food and was reimbursed $90 a day for his meals, which totaled $720 for the trip. Minor was reimbursed $90 for one day’s meals and $86 for another. Hall’s daily food reimbursements fluctuated between $19.50 and $81. Butch Brown was reimbursed for $41 a day.

State rules cap meal reimbursement at $31 a day for many areas of Mississippi, but that cap increases in more expensive areas and when officials travel abroad, meal reimbursements are often based on “actual expenses” with no receipts required and no specified spending limit.

While many conferences appear to offer the traveling transportation officials lunches, dinners, banquets and hospitality rooms with food, they apparently decide to dine on their own and file for meal reimbursements.

Kym Wiggins, public information officer for DFA, said state employees must pledge that they haven’t had someone else pay for what they’re reimbursed. Wiggins said that receiving double payments, or having someone else buy meals for which you report expenses could result in “a fine, civil liability and removal from office.”

But state law also doesn’t require officials to report any meals or gifts under $2,500 in one year that businesses or groups buy them. DFA officials said all the MDOT leaders’ expense reports are approved by MDOT and checked by DFA.

Often, MDOT officials agree to speak at trade group meetings for which they and their wives receive lodging and airfare.

Butch Brown said that not only his job, but his membership and leadership positions on various national boards and associations, requires him to travel frequently. He is a regular visitor to Washington, Cape Cod, New York and elsewhere.

His trip to Washington in which he stayed in a Washington Court Hotel room at a rate of $457 for a night was for the fall meeting of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ standing committee on water transportation, which Brown chairs. At the conference, they discussed the findings from another conference.

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