Records show big travel costs for some state agency leaders

From San Diego to Istanbul, Turkey, North Carolina leaders in 2014 spent thousands of public dollars for trips across the state, country and world on government business.

A WRAL News analysis of records for the 2014 calendar year found wide variations in how more than a dozen agency leaders travel and track those trips. Some make frequent use of state planes and vehicles on their way to meetings and symposiums, while others make it a point never to request reimbursement from the state at all.

A handful also get trips paid for, largely through professional conferences designed to bring state officials together from across the country.

WRAL and five other news agencies across the state, including The Charlotte Observer, requested travel records of local and state officials as part of coverage of Sunshine Week, an annual event designed to raise awareness of transparency and open government.

State planes seen as money-saver

Several frequent travelers made regular use of the state’s own transportation resources.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata logged more than 56 hours on the state plane for a total cost of $34,769. He spent 13 of those hours traveling by plane with the governor.

Tata spent an additional $9,788 for lodging, airfare, mileage, meals and other expenses in 2014, according to the records.

“This is typical of required travel for an NCDOT secretary to effectively perform his job duties,” said Mike Charbonneau, Tata’s deputy secretary of communications. “As a reference point, travel for the previous NCDOT secretary in 2012 included 41.8 hours of state plane travel (costing $31,755.50) and $12,799.82 in additional travel expenses.”

Charbonneau added that Tata had slightly more in-state travel than the previous secretary, who had more out-of-state travel.

No reimbursement means sparse record keeping

WRAL’s analysis also revealed that some agency leaders pay out of pocket for their travel and do not request reimbursement. That was the case with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, who draws a salary of $1 a year as the head of one of the state’s largest Cabinet departments.

“Since no reimbursement is sought, there is no specific record in existence that DHHS uses to track the secretary’s travel,” spokesman Kevin Howell said. “The closest records that could be used to document the secretary’s travel are her appointments.”

Howell provided records of those appointments upon request.

Some leaders travel internationally

Some agency leaders traveled beyond the United States on behalf of North Carolina.

Treasurer Janet Cowell took more than 50 trips last year, many of which were in North Carolina and in major U.S. cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

But records show she traveled twice outside the U.S.

Last spring, Cowell spent more than a week in Istanbul, Turkey, for an international investing symposium.

In May, she traveled to Mexico City for four days for BlackRock Investor Day. For a six-day economic development trip to Tokyo in September, the state approved about $7,500 in expenses for then-Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker and her chief economic development liaison, Susan Fleetwood, including meals, airfare and a stay at the Hotel New Otani.

Mecklenburg County leaders travel to conferences

On Feb. 19, the Observer requested from Mecklenburg County travel records for county commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, commissioners George Dunlap and Pat Cotham, County Manager Dena Diorio and Mecklenburg DSS Director Peggy Eagan.

Mecklenburg County emailed a one-page compilation of those records on March 6. The expenses, primarily to conferences, included: registration for conferences, airfare, mileage, lodging, meals, transportation (cabs, car rentals) and miscellaneous.

They showed that Fuller and Diorio traveled to Minneapolis, Minn., for a Charlotte Chamber “inter-city visit” last June, and Fuller, Diorio and Dunlap flew to New Orleans for the annual National Association of Counties conference last July.

Eagan made 11 trips, mostly for conferences and meetings, the farthest to Washington, D.C., for a conference. The county said Cotham didn’t ask for any reimbursement of travel fees during the year.

Governor’s office, City of Charlotte lag in test of public records responses

More than a month after WRAL News asked 18 of North Carolina’s top government leaders for their travel records, two agencies have not provided any documents showing where the governor and lieutenant governor went in 2014.

The requests were part of an experiment to see how quickly and thoroughly the state’s top agencies respond to public information requests. The project was timed for Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. Agencies were not told they were being tested.

As part of the project, the Observer sought travel records last month for members of Charlotte’s City Council members. The city has not yet released the records but said it will do so by the end of the week, and it has made the records a priority. WRAL and Steve Harrison