Sen. Jeff Sessions may have spent much of the past week slamming the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for holding its annual taxpayer-funded conference in Hawaii, but the conservative lawmaker has also taken trips to exotic locales on the taxpayer’s dime.
In the wake of the scandal over the General Services Administration’s lavish Las Vegas conference, the Alabama Republican has been a leading voice in demanding the executive and judicial branches scale back their spending on conferences.
Sessions’ office launched a blitz against the court’s conference, sending out 10 press releases in just three days on the issue.
“This conference is further evidence the federal government is in a state of financial chaos,” Sessions said in a statement when the scandal first broke. “How can anyone in Washington ask for more taxes when this culture of excess continues? Americans struggling to pay their bills are tired of watching the government throw lavish events on the taxpayer dime.”
In a floor speech Wednesday, Sessions again brought up the 9th Circuit, charging it “will spend a million or more taxpayer dollars for a decadent getaway to beach front resort and spa in the Hawaiian tropics.”
Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was equally critical. “Technology is so advanced that people are earning college degrees online and soldiers serving halfway across the world use Skype with their families at home,” he said in a statement. “A judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise. It’s especially tone-deaf to plan a pricey conference after the GSA debacle.”
But even a budget hawk such as Sessions — who has voluntarily cut operating costs in his office and the minority side of the Budget Committee by 15 percent — has done a bit of taxpayer-funded travel, including a 2011 trip to the Croatian resort town of Opatija to give the keynote address at an International Leaders Summit. And his top health care staffer spent two weekends that year on the tony resort island of Destin, Fla., at medical conferences.
Like the conferences put on by the 9th Circuit and the GSA, these trips were undertaken for official business, do not violate any ethics rules and are generally seen as vital parts of a lawmaker and his staff’s duties.
They do, however, cost money.
Neither House nor Senate critics of the GSA or the 9th Circuit have turned such a critical eye on Capitol Hill, and Sessions is far from alone in using federal funds to finance official trips to resorts.
Lawmakers routinely spend thousands of taxpayer dollars for themselves and their staff to attend beachside conferences, conventions held just steps from breathtaking ski slopes and fact-finding missions tied to hotels located next to golf courses.
A review of Sessions’ travel since 2010 turned up only a handful of Congressional delegation trips over the past several years, including a 2011 trip to Eastern Europe. During that CODEL, Sessions took time out to give the keynote address at the Adriatic Institute for Public Policy’s International Leaders Summit in Opatija, a seaside resort on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
In an interview with a Croatian news agency, Sessions praised the town’s beauty.
“It is my first time. I am just thrilled to be here. It’s just beautiful, fabulously beautiful. My executive assistant ... comes over here every year for vacation and she speaks very highly of it,” Sessions said as he sat on a veranda framed by pink flowers, “I have not been disappointed.”
During his trip Sessions stayed at the Hotel Milenij, which boasts “outdoor indoor swimming pool with jacuzzi, whirlpool, sauna, steam bath, solarium, sun terrace, fitness hall and a massage room.” According to the website: “The hotel offers a well-equipped business centre, fine shops, rent-a-car and a travel agency. Nearby the hotel there are: tennis courts, sports hall, marina, casino and health and beauty facilities.”
The cost of the trip is unclear — Sessions’ speech came during a multicountry swing through the region that included stops in Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and Estonia, and the cost of airfare and most other expenses was picked up by the State Department. However, Senate records do indicate Sessions spent $1,487 in “per diem” costs during the CODEL.
Sessions’ staff has also, on occasion, billed the Treasury for official trips to resort areas, including two trips in April and June 2011 to Destin, Fla., by Dr. James Pierce.
According to Senate records, Pierce spent a total of $1,554 on the two trips, both of which were to attend medical conferences. Although Pierce opted to stay at the Courtyard Marriot during his trip to the Medical Association of the State of Alabama to save costs, during his April trip for an ob-gyn conference he stayed for three nights at the Sandestin Beach Hilton Golf Resort and Spa.
The hotel notes on its website that Condé Nast has listed it as one of the “Top 20 Florida Golf Resorts” and “Top 150 U.S. Resorts,” while boasting of “our sugar white sand and emerald green waters.”
Both conferences were clearly within the purview of Pierce’s work as Sessions’ health care aide and appear typical of the sorts of events House and Senate staffers have long attended for professional development or constituent work.
Additionally, a Republican aide points out that “as a general rule, under Senate ethics provisions, if a staff member attends a private conference in an official function those expenses should come from the office travel budget — as Dr. Pierce’s did — and not from an outside source.”
To be sure, Sessions has also taken pains to save the taxpayers money, even when he has been traveling.
For instance, at the beginning of the 2010 August recess, Sessions traveled to the northern Florida coast to visit a nuclear submarine at the Mayport Naval Station as part of his duties as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. The two day trip cost tax payers $944 — almost all of which came as a result of flights from Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and then to Mobile, Ala., at the end of the trip.
Sessions spent only $9.63 on “incidentals” and $32.24 in “per diem” costs during the trip. He stayed in the home of a family while in the region and used a family vehicle to travel around.
Sessions has also made significant cuts to his overall budget over the past year, aides said, and he routinely pays for his own meals while traveling inside Alabama.
“We appreciate the opportunity to highlight the fact that Senator Sessions has voluntarily reduced his office budget by 15 percent. Additionally, we are pleased to announce that, in an extra step, he has also reduced the budget for the minority side of the Budget Committee (which already receives less funds than many other committees and the majority side) by at least that much,” Sessions spokesman Stephen Miller said in a statement Friday.
“Unlike the big spenders on the 9th Circuit, Sessions has always been frugal with taxpayer dollars, going all the way back to his time as a U.S. Attorney when he would split hotel rooms with other attorneys to save money when traveling,” Miller added.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.