[ Lisa Rein| September 19, 2016 | The Washington Post]
Top Senate Republicans are demanding that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker explain how the luxurious travel habits of her top trade deputy escaped her notice and whether she has examined the expenses of additional agency employees.
The questions from John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, come in response to an investigation by the Commerce Department watchdog.
It found that a high-level political appointee identified by government sources as Stefan Selig, the Commerce undersecretary for international trade for more than two years, stayed in four-star hotels as he traveled around the world promoting U.S. industry and spent $50,000 to renovate his office in Washington.
Selig, a wealthy investment banker, was recruited from Bank of America by Pritzker in 2014 to lead the International Trade Administration, part of the Commerce Department.
The expenses broke rules for permitted hotel expenditures for federal workers — even those as senior as Selig — and for office upgrades, Deputy Inspector General David Smith’s office found in a 45-page report made public Sept. 8.
The report “calls into question the Department’s ability to exercise responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the effectiveness of safeguards put in place to prevent exactly this type of behavior from occuring,” Thune and Johnson wrote Friday in a letter to Pritzker.
Investigators found that although Selig offered to pay hotel costs that exceeded the government rate, he was nonetheless reimbursed hundreds of dollars more than he should have been for each night on at least 12 of the 20 trips he took during his first year in the job.
The report said investigators concluded that there was a systemic breakdown in oversight: Selig paid little attention to government travel rules and created a culture in which his staff felt little obligation to follow them either — with some fearing that doing so would anger their boss.
Underscoring that the spending resulted partly from a lack of internal controls, Thune and Johnson have asked Pritzker whether she plans to examine the travel and expenses of other senior officials across the Commerce Department and whether any changes have been made to training procedures from travel and office renovations.
The lawmakers also want to know whether the agency is seeking to recover “misspent funds” from Selig, whether Pritzker ever spoke to him about his travel lifestyle, and whether he was asked to resign or left on his own.
Selig, in his first public comments since the report was issued, said in an email that the inspector general “confirmed I instructed my staff that I would personally pay for anything that was not covered by policy, that I never knowingly filed anything improperly and that it was implausible I would seek any improper reimbursement” for travel expenses.
He said he paid for his office furniture and decorations with his own money and left his post at the International Trade Administration in June “of my own accord … for reasons entirely unrelated to this report.”
In a longer letter to the editor published Saturday in The Washington Post, Selig wrote that “no good deed goes unpunished” when a successful business executive takes a position in government.
“I sincerely hope this does not deter other private-sector leaders from serving their country,” the letter said.
A Commerce Department spokesman said in an email, “We’re in receipt of the letter and look forward to responding.”