With federal agencies saying the large budget cuts scheduled to go into effect March 1 will have dire consequences for real people, taxpayers are particularly sensitive to reports such as the one that the FBI director and attorney general -- in two administrations -- used more expensive government jets to take personal and business trips, rather than flying on smaller or slower aircraft that could have saved the taxpayer money.
Two corporate-style jets that the FBI persuaded Congress to lease for fighting global terrorism have instead been used the majority of the time to ferry Attorney General Eric Holder, his predecessor in the Bush administration and FBI Director Robert Mueller on business and personal trips at an expense of millions of dollars to taxpayers, an investigation has found.
The bureau's state-the-art, sleek Gulfstream V jets logged 60 percent of their hours between 2007 and 2011 on "non-mission flights" that cost taxpayers $11.4 million, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office  obtained by the Washington Guardian.
The travel included 88 personal trips for Holder and former Republican Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who stepped down in 2009, and 10 for Mueller, the review found. Taxpayers were reimbursed only pennies on the dollar for those personal trips under the current rules, the audit found.
On at least one occasion a trip by Holder in 2011 left the FBI without access to a Gulfstream during a counterterrorism operation, forcing agents to scramble to charter a private plane, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Guardian.
For many years, the White House has required attorney generals to use government aircraft for all business and personal travel for security reasons. And in 2011, Mueller was added to the list of officials who was required to fly on government planes fulltime.
The FBI, however, had a smaller Citation jet that was used for years to transport former FBI Director Louis Freeh on business trips, as well as a Haviland Dash 8 turboprop that other officials have used. Those are much cheaper to operate. But since 2007, those smaller aircraft were used only about a third of the time for Mueller, Holder and Mukasey, as the bureau opted for the larger, more luxurious Gulfstream counterterrorism jets for executive travel, the GAO found.
A key senator said Wednesday the diversion of the counterterrorism jets for everyday travel, especially personal trips, runs contrary to the purpose that Congress approved the aircraft and costs taxpayers needlessly when cheaper options are available.
"If somebody asks for the expenditure of federal money for the Gulfstream, it's to be used for the purpose it was meant to be be used for," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department and FBI.
Bureau officials said they saw no problem using the Gulfstream counterterrorism jets for travel for Mueller, Holder and Mukasey, adding the trips complied with the White House rules and simply made use of idle time when the aircraft weren't needed for terrorism work.
“Counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction operations, whether transporting investigators or other forensic experts, critical evidence, or apprehended terrorists, are the first priority for all FBI aircraft," the bureau said Wednesday night in a joint statement with the Justice Department. "As the GAO confirmed, the Department of Justice always adheres to these priorities in scheduling use of its aircraft. As demonstrated, the overwhelming majority of travel by the Attorney General and the FBI Director is official business travel, including essential meetings with state, local and foreign government and law enforcement officials in furtherance of the Department’s national security and public safety mission.”
The White House and bureau security experts believe the Gulfstream's special, encrypted communication systems are also important for ensuring traveling officials have secure communication, officials explained. In addition, bureau officials argued, nearly every trip the FBI director takes furthers the counterterrorism mission of the bureau, even when visiting local offices or giving speeches.
The Justice Department declined further comment, but referred a reporter to a letter officials sent Congress last fall  in which the bureau sought to use more favorable figures for the corporate jets. If the total number of flights are used as a measure -- instead of flight hours -- the travel of the top executives only accounted for about a third of the jets' travel, the letter argued, while investigative work accounted for about 60 percent of the flights.
The GAO, however, used the percentage of total hours to reflect the amount of time the corporate jets weren't available for counterterrorism work if needed, officials said.
The FBI letter from last fall also disclosed that on one occasion in fall 2011, one FBI Gulfstream was in maintenance and the other was being used by Holder for executive travel when FBI officials sought at the last minute to use the jets for a counterterrorism operation.
Holder and several top aides were already on their trip, and their Gulfstream "could not be repositioned in time" so counterterrorism agents were forced to charter a private plane, which turned out not to be needed in the end, the letter said.
The GAO report, expected to be made public on Thursday, provides extraordinary detail on America's top three law enforcement officials' travel.
The bureau has said the Gulfstreams, a favorite jet of CEOs in the corporate world, are housed in a secret Washington area location, and were needed to whisk FBI counterterrorism agents on a moment's notice to global hotspots for investigations, transporting terrorists, dispatching equipment and returning evidence to Washington for testing. The bureau, in seeking budget approval, has told Congress over the years that the jets were used for "crucial missions" into Iraq and "fast-moving investigations and crisis situations" in places such as Afghanistan.
And in 2010, when the FBI sought additional money and eventually the second Gulfstream jet, officials told Congress that the original jet was being taxed by the counterterrorism mission. “Aviation missions transport personnel for counterterrorism operations throughout the world, and increasing usage of the Gulfstream V has placed a strain on available maintenance/fuel funds necessary to successfully carry out crucial missions," the budget request argued.
But the GAO review found the jets were used only used about 40 percent of the time for counterterrorism since 2007, with their primary function becoming executive travel.
“From fiscal years 2007 through 2011, 60 percent (2,206 of 3,657) of all flight hours for the FBI’s two Gulfstream V aircraft were associated with non-mission flights to transport the Attorneys General, FBI Director, and other DOJ executives,” the GAO found. The smaller aircraft were used only about a third of the time for the executive travel, the audit found.
In fact, the FBI has now scrapped its smaller Citation jet in favor of the second Gulfstream, officials said.
Grassley questioned the judgment of the bureau to use the larger aircraft regularly.
"The law requires the folks to travel," Grassley said, "but they don't have to travel in the Gulfstream if they've got Citations, particularly if it's for personal use. ... When you're going to some private event or personal event, that's unrelated to your government service, and you're using these planes, you ought to take the cheapest method of travel you can."
The GAO report follows other recent controversies in which top government and political leaders have created perks or conveniences for themselves that are unavailable for average Americans and cost taxpayers money. Over the last few years, lawmakers who have used military aircraft for travel or White House officials who used government cars as limousine service have stirred their own controversies.
FBI officials point out that Holder, who took over in 2009 from Mukasey, and Mueller, who has been FBI director since 2001, were forced by a White House order to use government aircraft, and that the decision on what aircraft to use each time falls to career officials in the FBI flight operations unit.
Nonetheless, the cost to taxpayers – especially when the Gulfstream Vs are used for personal travel – can be large.
Take for instance the personal travel aboard the aircraft. When Holder, Mueller or Mukasey took personal trips, they reimbursed taxpayers at a rate equivalent to coach air fare on commercial flights, but that amount hardly covers the true cost of the flights. In fact, the 88 trips by Holder and Mukasey for personal reasons cost about $1.6 million, yet the taxpayers were reimbursed only $46,982, or about 2.9 percent of the actual tab.
The report cited one specific example by Holder, who took a personal trip in November 2010 using the FBI’s Gulfstream V. The flight “had an estimated flight cost of $15,894, but the reimbursement at the equivalent commercial fare was $420.80,” the report noted.
Mueller used the aircraft far less often for personal trips, making just 10 trips and reimbursing the government a total of $4,556, the report said. One factor contributing to the lower total was that Mueller was not required to use government aircraft for personal travel until 2011. In fact, the report noted, Mueller almost always flew on commercial airlines for personal travel before the White House order was extended to him.
The GAO also cited another potentially avoidable cost for taxpayers: The FBI jets are kept at a secret location outside Washington and must be flown each time to Reagan National Airport to pick up Mueller and Holder. The cost of those brief transitional flights was $1.5 million between 2007 and 2011 -- roughly 10 percent of the total cost of all their flights.
The FBI argues these positioning flights are “necessary because, among other things, the location where the FBI maintains the aircraft is an unmarked covert facility, and at times, the FBI initiates sensitive flight operations from this site,” but not everyone agrees.
Grassley said the positioning flights "show the whole ridiculousness and the waste of money in this particular case. So you keep these planes hidden, someplace close to Washington, D.C., I assume. You fly them from there to Reagan to pickup the people who are going to fly, when car travel would save these millions of dollars that's wasted."