Since Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell promised seven months ago to “substantially reduce” travel funded by outside sources, the agency has accepted $90,000-worth of free trips, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
FCC spokesman David Fiske told the Center in February there would be no more industry-funded travel by commissioners and “decision makers” at a “high level.”
While travel by the highest-level FCC employees has all but ceased, records obtained through a Freedom of Information request show there have been plenty of industry-funded trips taken by upper-level managers.
For example, the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January was attended by five FCC employees, including three deputy chiefs and the chief of the Policy and Rules Division in the Office of Engineering and Technology.
The trips totaled $6,355 and were funded by the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group. But that was a dramatic decrease compared with the previous year when 27 FCC workers, including Powell and commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Jonathan Adelstein, attended. Total cost to the association was $45,736.
In May 2003, the Center released a report chronicling how FCC officials had accepted nearly $2.8 million in travel and entertainment expenses over the past eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries the agency regulates.
Following the report’s release, several unsuccessful attempts have been made in Congress to ban the practice.
On July 25, 2003, Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FCC’s budget, wrote Powell asking his agency to stop accepting such travel.
On Aug. 18, 2003, Powell wrote Wolf back, promising to request a $500,000 funding increase to cover necessary travel. “Even while this effort is underway, I have commenced a further review of our travel program to substantially reduce section 1353 [i.e., non-agency-funded] travel and to guarantee that all travel is necessary to advance the agency’s mission.”
Since Aug. 18, 2003, the date Powell pledged to reduce such travel, through Feb. 13, 2004, FCC employees have accepted 65 trips for a dollar value of $89,843.58.
On March 31, Powell presented the FCC’s fiscal 2005 budget to Wolf’s subcommittee and asked for a travel budget increase of $21,000—far short of what he said he would seek in his earlier letter. (Last February, Wolf told the Center Powell told him he had agreed to end the practice.)
Fiske told the Center the agency internally shifted $321,000 to the travel budget of the five commissioners. The change is making it possible for the commissioners to pay their own way to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas later this month. Last year, they flew on the powerful broadcast lobbying group’s dime.
Only two commissioners took non-FCC-funded trips since Powell’s letter to Wolf.
Commissioner Michael J. Copps and a top aide traveled to Nigeria and South Africa on a trip sponsored by Washington State University and the University of Maryland and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Commissioner Kevin J. Martin and an aide flew to Boston for a fall conference of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association.
Martin’s office said the new policy on industry funded travel did not go into effect until the new fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2003. Martin’s trip took place Sept. 22 to 24, 2003.
The most frequent traveler during the period was Roy J. Stewart, Chief, Office of Broadcast License Policy in the Media Bureau. He went on six trips worth $4,745, paid for by the National Association of Broadcasters and by five state-level broadcasters’ associations.
Some other high-level travelers included Powell’s senior legal adviser who went to the “CoBank 2003 Executive Forum” in Beaver Creek, CO on Aug. 25. CoBank is a large lending institution.
Powell told the subcommittee on March 31 that travel is now restricted to “a handful” of “mid- or lower-level staff.” In his budget request, he wrote “I currently do not accept Section 1353 travel from regulated entities and I have directed bureau and office chiefs and members of my personal staff to follow the same policy.”
Wolf, while pleased that the agency had changed its travel policy, told Powell at the subcommittee hearing that he would prefer to see the trips cease altogether except when they are funded by charitable organizations.
“I think our goal should be to get down to zero, with the exception being again on a charitable institution,” he said. “And maybe the committee and your staff, we can work together to see if we can do that.”
No mention was made of Powell’s earlier intention to ask for a $500,000 increase in travel funds.
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