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By Vicki Allen WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon wasted $100 million over six years on airline tickets, a report revealed on Wednesday, prompting lawmakers to urge the government to "fix its culture of indifference" to American taxpayers.
The Pentagon's weak internal controls "led to millions of dollars wasted on airline tickets that were unused and not refunded, and millions more where DOD (Department of Defense) made payments to travelers for improper and potentially fraudulent claims," the report by the General Accounting Office said.
The report was the latest criticism of waste at the Pentagon, known in the 1980s for buying $600 toilet seats and $400 on hammers.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who testified at a hearing into the report, said the Pentagon "had no idea these millions of dollars in unused airline tickets were sitting out there" until the GAO raised the issue.
"DOD will never collect all the money that could potentially be recouped from these unused tickets, but it would have recovered no money at all if GAO hadn't led them to it," Grassley said.
"What I want to start hearing is how DOD is going to fix its culture of indifference to internal controls and lack of respect for the American taxpayers," Grassley told the hearing by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
The GAO said the $100 million estimate of waste on airline tickets from 1997-2002 was conservative.
It said limited data provided by the Defense Department showed it had bought about 58,000 tickets worth about $21.1 million in 2001 and 2002 that were not used and not refunded as of October 2003.
Also, three airlines reported that the Department bought more than 81,000 tickets for more than $62 million that were only partially used.
The GAO also said the Pentagon paid million of dollars in improper reimbursements for potentially fraudulent claims for airline tickets. Some Pentagon employees submitted multiple claims for tickets they did not purchase, with one traveler getting nearly $10,000 for tickets he did not buy.
At least one case has been turned over for prosecution.
The GAO report also highlighted security flaws, as GAO personnel working under cover were able to buy tickets based on a fictitious travel order, fake identification and an unnamed Defense Department office.
"GAO's undercover agents would have been able to travel on a major U.S. airline, for free, under fake identification. This could have been any criminal, including a terrorist, utilizing fake identification," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who also testified at the hearing.
"Because of a culture at the Defense Department that seems to persistently tolerate abuse of public dollars and public trust, precious taxpayer funds continue to be wasted," Schakowsky added.
The GAO has identified the Pentagon's fiscal management as a "high-risk" area, and has also issued scathing reports on waste, fraud and abuse of credit cards paid for by the department.
The Pentagon's deputy chief financial officer, JoAnn Boutelle, told the hearing the department "has undertaken a massive overhaul of its management and support activities," and is trying to get refunds on unused tickets.