Reports Obscure House Expenses

Posted January 23, 2009 at 5:51pm

The massive reports published each quarter by the House Chief Administrative Officer detailing the expenses incurred by each Congressional office may not be a reliable guide of how the offices actually spent their budgets, according to documents reviewed by Roll Call.

Since Congressional offices are not required to release any information on their own expenses — and dozens refused Roll Call’s request to do so — there is no way to confirm the veracity of the reports published by the CAO, but Roll Call’s review provides ample reason to doubt that they are reliable.

When a Congressional office incurs an official expense — for example, a D.C. staff member staying in a hotel while visiting the district office — the expense is documented with a receipt. To get reimbursement for that expense, the staff member completes a form called a voucher that describes the expense and the date it was incurred, then submits the receipt and voucher to the CAO.

The CAO staff reimburses the aide and enters the expense into its database, but changes the description of the expense to one of several predetermined categories to keep its coding consistent. This is how the entry appears in the quarterly “Statement of Disbursements,” widely known as the “beige books.”

According to Jeff Ventura, spokesman for the CAO, “The Member’s office submits an expense voucher and receipts and the expense is then coded under the category that best defines the expense using a predefined code. This is done to ensure uniformity in the Statement of Disbursements.” Ventura said the categories “are standard classifications throughout the Federal Government.”

But that process both eliminates details from the reporting of the expense and introduces human error that results in some expenses being reported incorrectly, according to sources familiar with the process.

Over the past several months, Roll Call has asked dozens of House Members to provide access to the vouchers for their offices, and nearly every office declined.

The offices that did participate did so only on the grounds that Roll Call not reveal their names, for fear of retribution from other Members. As one staff member said in declining to provide vouchers from his office, “We don’t want to be ‘that guy’” who creates an uncomfortable situation for other Members of Congress.

The vouchers Roll Call reviewed indicate that much of the information included in the beige books is not the same as the information included on the vouchers, and in many cases it is less specific, and in some cases it is simply incorrect.

For example, one voucher Roll Call reviewed indicated a $445 payment to Verizon Wireless for one month of service for the “Member phone,” suggesting that the Member is logging significant cell phone bills every month. But the payment for that bill was listed in the Statement of Disbursements as “telecommunications charges,” eliminating the detail about whose phone was being used.

Another telephone charge in the same office was apparently miscoded by the CAO staff, and it appeared in the beige books as “janitorial and related services.”

In another Congressional office, a voucher was submitted for reimbursement of a staff member’s travel expenses, but the disbursement books list the payment as going to a different staff member.

The office receipts indicate that the Member hired an outside consultant to run an office strategic planning retreat for $4,200, but those expenses are published by the CAO as “temporary space rental.”

Vouchers for taxis, parking and car service are all reported as “local transportation”; vouchers for utilities such as phone and cable television that provide the address of the district office being served are revised to eliminate those details.

Some line items in the disbursement books say only that a staffer was reimbursed more than $1,000 for “travel subsistence,” but the vouchers for that entry include receipts for hotel bills, valet parking, meals and other items, none of which is public information.

Some vouchers submitted by Members’ offices did not appear at all in the disbursement books for that period.

The CAO office told Roll Call that it could not release vouchers or receipts for any Congressional office without permission of the Member, and most Members refused to grant permission, so there is no way to confirm entries in the books.

The disbursement books are also not available electronically, so there is no way to search the expenditures to look for discrepancies in how payments to specific vendors are categorized.

Kyle Anderson, spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the CAO’s office, defended the disclosure process.

“The Statement of Disbursements is widely distributed and easily available for constituent review. Through the SOD, the House provides more public access to information on its expenditures than any other institution in government,” Anderson said.

But Anderson also said that “options for providing the SOD in an online format are currently under consideration.” The only way to review House office expenditures is to obtain a copy of the three-volume set of beige books.

Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told Roll Call in an e-mail: “The House discloses more financial information, and in a more timely fashion, than any other government agency. Every dime spent is publicly indexed and disclosed in a quarterly Statement of Disbursements available in Depository Libraries throughout the country.”

In addition, Elshami said, “To assure compliance with the strict House rules on use of House funds, each expenditure is examined by a Financial Counselor in the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer before it is paid.

“Furthermore, the House IG conducts an annual financial audit to ensure compliance.”

In December, Roll Call reported that because of an accounting error, the disbursement books printed for the third quarter of 2008 incorrectly reported that many Members had already exceeded their budgets for the year.

Ventura said at the time that “the year-to-date totals in the Statement of Disbursements are not accurate because the third-quarter results were counted twice, giving an inaccurate picture of the Members’ accounts.”

Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, said that even if the discrepancies between the disbursement books and the vouchers are minor, “It is public money and it should be accounted for.”

Allison said that since “there is no way to cross check to be able to see whether they are actually reporting accurately … you are in a situation where you just have to take their word for it and that kind of situation is a breeding ground for dishonesty.”

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.