Attorney general's private trips cost taxpayers

Attorney General Michael Mukasey has taken personal trips on government jets almost every weekend since taking office less than a year ago, costing taxpayers over $155,800, Justice Department and Federal Aviation Administration records show.

Mukasey took so many trips to his home in New York on FAA, FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration planes that he was outside Washington a third or more of February, May, July, August and September. From November 2007 to September 2008, he traveled to New York 45 times, according to records released in response to open records requests that McClatchy Newspapers filed nine months ago.

Justice officials defended Mukasey's personal travel, saying he has no choice but to fly on a government jet to see his family. Mukasey, unlike most other Cabinet members, can't fly commercial, for security reasons, and often worked from home, the officials said.

“When he travels personally, the attorney general pays what any other government official would pay for a commercial flight to that location,” Justice spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. “It would be unfair to penalize financially the attorney general because he is one of the few government officials required to use government aircraft for all travel.”

Mukasey traveled with his wife on 17 trips, and eight were with four or five relatives. Most with his wife and other relatives were one-way between New York and Washington.

Mukasey reimbursed the government $15,246 for his trips, based on round-trip coach fares, as required by government regulations. But the cost of operating the Gulfstream G5s, Cessna Citations and de Havilland Dash 8-100s that Mukasey uses is more.

In February, Mukasey flew to Orlando, Fla., with his wife and four relatives. Regulations allow officials who are required to travel by government aircraft to bring relatives as long as they reimburse the taxpayers for the equivalent coach fare, which Mukasey did, officials said. For that trip, he paid $2,173. The actual cost to the government, according to the Justice Department: $12,250.

Mukasey's personal trips appear to outpace those of others required to travel on government jets.

During the same period, Defense Secretary Robert Gates took fewer than six. The Pentagon refused to release the details of the secretary's personal travel, but spokesman Bryan Whitman said “you can count on one hand” the number of personal trips Gates took in fiscal 2008.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who became one of the few officials required to fly on a government plane in 2004, didn't appear to have taken any personal trips in the last fiscal year, according to FAA records. His staff said he has taken about three personal trips a year during his four-year tenure.

“The Secretary is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” wrote Laura Keehner in an e-mail response. “There is no time for frivolous trips when you are the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.”

All members of Congress used to fly commercial. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration authorized the speaker of the House of Representatives to fly on military planes when they're available for official business.

A congressional official said that last year Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took 17 trips to her district on military planes. Pelosi isn't required to reimburse taxpayers because such travel is considered official.