Raleigh, N.C. — From San Diego, Calif., 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 their 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 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.
Not every agency responded to WRAL's requests, and some provided very few records without much detail.
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.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler also listed thousands of dollars worth of flights using state planes to destinations both in and out of state. Department spokesperson Brian Long said the use of the planes can end up saving money in the long run, especially if multiple staff members are traveling as well.
"When he does use the state plane, he only does it after looking at a variety of factors – time, whether it would save an additional hotel night in some cases, or if it is more efficient if you've got a group," Long said. "It's not something where he just says, 'Hey, book the state plane.'"
No reimbursement means sparse recordkeeping
WRAL’s analysis also revealed that some agency leaders pay out of pocket for their own 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,” spokesperson 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.
Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry also did not request any reimbursement for the 128 trips she took around North Carolina last year, according to her communications director, Dolores Quesenberry.
“Commissioner Berry has never submitted a reimbursement request for her travel or any other expenses since taking office in 2001. This includes the use of her personal car, meals and lodging,” Quesenberry wrote.
From the Department of Public Safety, spokeswoman Pam Walker provided a five-page document detailing a trip by Secretary Frank Perry to San Diego, Calif., June 8 to 10.
“Any other travel was in-state and did not require overnight stay or request for reimbursement,” Walker said.
In contrast, some agency records can be highly detailed.
Troxler fills out a travel log for his assigned state-owned Chevy Avalanche that lists not just destination and thousands of miles of North Carolina roads traveled every month, but gas fill-ups and oil changes as well.
For Revenue Secretary Lyons Gray, the majority of the travel was in-state to the department’s service centers sprinkled from Elizabeth City to Asheville. The costs of those trips were, for the most part, made up of mileage reimbursement.
Gray's records go so far as to detail materials (flip chart, $10) and snacks (“Chocolate Bites station”, $39) for a day-long agency retreat at the Raleigh Country Club.
Paid travel often comes from outside sources
In many cases, agency leaders traveled to major U.S. cities to attend conferences – and some even got reimbursements to do so.
Department of Administration Secretary Bill Daughtridge was reimbursed $673 by the National Association for State Chief Administrators for a trip to Albuquerque, N.M.
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall also took several trips funded by outside government agencies.
Last June, she flew to Moldova in Eastern Europe as co-chair of the NC-Moldova Partnership. The U.S. Department of State covered her nine-day trip, including her airfare, hotel, meals and transportation and paid for a translator.
George Jeter, Marshall’s director of communications, said she tries to be a frugal traveler.
“There’s a lot on there that she probably just paid for herself. She’s a home economics major, so she’s pretty cheap,” Jeter said. “She glares at you if you get a $4 cup of coffee.”
Trips to Washington, D.C., were also common as agency leaders flocked to the capital to meet with their national and state counterparts. Attorney General Roy Cooper, for example, expensed an almost $800 trip there to attend the winter meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General.
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, D.C., 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. That trip featured attendance to the annual Southeast U.S.-Japan Association joint meeting, which included state officials from Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, among others.
But the budget authorization form notes that it doesn't detail actual airfare costs, since Decker was expecting a refund from delayed flights she and Fleetwood ultimately had to cancel.
"The governor sent his plane to fetch Sharon and Susan when they became stranded in D.C.," the memo reads.