WASHINGTON, DC – Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and the ranking GOP member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants answers about whether Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other senior Justice Department officials misused FBI aircraft, hindering the agency’s investigations and ignoring a White House order to cut travel costs.
Like a few senior administration officials with high-profile roles, Mr. Holder is required for security reasons to use government aircraft when he travels. But Mr. Grassley said he has received complaints that Mr. Holder has abused the privilege, using FBI plans for travel when aircraft were needed for FBI missions, and, in at least one instance, reserving an FBI plane and leaving it idling on the tarmac when he upgraded to a larger aircraft without telling the agency.
According to Mr. Grassley’s account of the allegations, the travel by Mr. Holder and other senior department officials is so frequent that the FBI is considering leasing a private plane to conduct FBI investigative work.
Mr. Grassley; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican; Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman; and Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, on Thursday wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III asking for specific information about the use of the agency’s aircraft by Mr. Holder and other administration officials.
“We are aware that the attorney general is required to travel by government aircraft for security purposes,” they wrote. “We believe it is important to determine whether use of the FBI’s aircraft by the attorney general and other senior Department of Justice officials adheres to relevant statutes and policies, is cost-effective, and does not hinder the operational readiness of the FBI.”
Last year, The Washington Times reported that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was commuting home each weekend to Monterey, Calif., on a military jet and reimbursing the government for a fraction of the cost — an arrangement that came under scrutiny during Washington’s tough budget times. Mr. Panetta has since apologized for the practice and said he will think about alternatives to the high-priced commute.
In their letter, Mr. Grassley and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee became concerned about the allegations of Mr. Holder’s use of the FBI’s jet after reading about the $870,000 price tag for Mr. Panetta’s personal travel.
During a Judiciary Committee hearing in May, Mr. Grassley asked Mr. Mueller about Mr. Holder’s travel on FBI aircraft. At the time, Mr. Mueller said any “travel of the principals is secondary to use of the plane for the investigative work of the FBI” and Mr. Holder understands this priority. Mr. Mueller postponed responses to specific questions about the extent of Mr. Holder’s travel to a later date.
In 2008, then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a Bush appointee’s, use of government jets for personal travel came under scrutiny. McClatchy reported that Mr. 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 of the time during a five-month period, and traveled to New York 45 times in an 11-month period.
Justice Department officials at the time defended Mr. Mukasey’s personal travel, arguing that he had no choice but to fly on a government plane to see his family because of security reasons.
Mr. Holder’s and Mr. Panetta’s travel situations are drawing more scrutiny, particularly after President Obama issued marching orders late last year for all Cabinet agencies to cut back on everything, including cellphone use and official gifts such as mugs. He singled out travel as an area ripe for savings.
In May, after fallout over a lavish General Services Administration conference cost top officials at the agency their jobs, the Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to cut travel costs by 30 percent, but agencies can get exemptions if certain types of travel are related to national security.