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Long's improper use of FEMA staff, SUVs included Hawaii pineapple plant tour, investigation finds

FILE PHOTO: FEMA Administrator Brock Long listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on preparations for Hurricane Florence at the White House on Sept. 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: FEMA Administrator Brock Long listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on preparations for Hurricane Florence at the White House on Sept. 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

WASHINGTON — FEMA administrator William “Brock” Long used government vehicles and staff on 40 different trips for personal reasons, including during a family vacation in Hawaii, despite official warnings the practice was unauthorized, an internal investigation found.

Long’s improper use of government resources cost taxpayers $94,000 in staff salary, $55,000 in travel expenses and $2,000 in vehicle maintenance, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general determined. The Washington Post obtained a redacted copy of the inspector general’s report before it was made public on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

DHS declined to address questions about the report, referring to a joint statement issued last week by Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said she had ordered Long to repay the government “as appropriate.” A DHS official said they have not yet agreed on the precise amount.

The Wall Street Journal first reported portions of the investigation’s content late Tuesday.

Long, in last week’s statement, said he would “accept full responsibility for any mistakes that were made by me.” He will be allowed to remain in his job, officials said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, Md., the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a statement that the FEMA administrator “is supposed to be focused on preparing for disasters like the devastating hurricanes that killed thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — not using government vehicles to shuttle his family around Hawaii at taxpayer expense.

He called Long’s “apparent violations of federal law for his own personal benefit ... another example of how senior officials in the Trump administration continue to use American taxpayer money to bankroll their lavish lifestyles.”

Long is the latest senior Trump administration official to be ensnared in a scandal over travel habits that have mixed official and personal trips on the government’s dime or relied on first-class or military planes.

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Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of costly charter jets for official travel cost him his job last fall, and former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was widely criticized for a trip to Europe that mixed official and personal travel at taxpayer expense. Scott Pruitt, the former Environmental Protection Agency chief, also came under scrutiny for charging the government for first-class plane tickets, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was investigated for trips mixing official business with political appearances, some taken on private charter flights.

Investigators took the unusual step of secretly surveilling Long over five months, from December through April, the report says. They watched him being driven multiple times in government-owned Chevrolet Suburbans or rented SUVs from his Washington, District of Columbia, apartment to FEMA headquarters, and from the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina to his home in Hickory, North Carolina, for weekend visits to see his family, according to the report.

Four aides on Long’s staff took a total of 25 trips to North Carolina, none of which involved official business, investigators found. They stayed in hotels near Long’s home while waiting to drive him back to Washington or to the Charlotte airport — all at taxpayer expense, the report says. Additionally, “all the drivers were provided either overtime or compensatory time,” investigators wrote.

During one trip in March, as an aide drove Long to North Carolina after an official event in Hot Springs, Virginia, Long told the driver to stop at a neighbor’s home to pick up one of his sons, the report says. Another time, an aide picked up Long’s children from school — a detour, Long told investigators, the aide offered to make, according to the report.

Investigators also highlighted an instance in November when Long directed an aide to pick him up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and drive him 150 miles to McRae, Georgia, where he attended a funeral for his wife’s grandfather, the report said.

The Hawaii trip, during which Long mixed work and family time, coincided with his kids’ spring break from school, investigators said. While there, an aide drove Long and his family to a visit a Dole pineapple plantation and a volcano after his official business was complete, the report says.

Afterward, Long told the aide he would consult an ethics attorney to determine if the personal legs of the trips were appropriate, according to the report. After FEMA’s ethics official told him “that the arrangement made it appear he used the trappings of his office and misused his government position,” the report says, Long wrote a check to the Treasury for $309.24.

The investigation, which has dogged Long for weeks, surfaced publicly just as FEMA began to ramp up for what remainsa full-fledged response to Hurricane Florence, which caused widespread flooding in North and South Carolina. Last week, amid reports of a feud between Long and Nielsen, it was disclosed the investigation had been referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, though officials said Friday that Long would not face charges.

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As news of the inquiry leaked, Long and his allies defended his use of government vehicles, noting that they are equipped with classified communications equipment in case he needs to speak with the president or other senior government officials. His drivers told investigators, however, that Long “has never used the [secure] communications package within the vehicles that transported him,” the report says.

In interviews with investigators, Long acknowledged taking many of the trips and said he assumed his staff was “working on obtaining clarity” on the government’s home-to-work transportation policy. He stated, too, that he did not feel he should pay for support necessary for him to perform duties under a presidential preparedness directive that requires the FEMA administrator to ensure the continuation of federal government services at all times.

The investigation was triggered after a government vehicle Long was riding in was involved in an accident in North Carolina last November. In it, investigators detail a policy that permits him to travel in government vehicles only during a national emergency, noting that the Homeland Security secretary must give approval first and that, otherwise, the cost of the vehicles, drivers’ salaries and gas would be considered a fringe benefit for which Long could be taxed.

Long, the report said, told his aides he could not afford the extra tax liability.

Some on his staff, incensed by the policy, insisted that the administrator be transported to and from his home, the report says. It describes a frantic series of emails among FEMA staff and attorneys as they tried to sort out the policy, whether it should be adhered to and whether Long had formally applied for an exemption.

As far back as October, some top FEMA aides told Long and his staff that he could no longer be picked up and dropped off at his residences. But the trips continued.

Two FEMA officials have been suspended in connection with the investigation.

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