WASHINGTON — Attorney General Michael Mukasey has taken personal trips on government jets almost every weekend since he took office less than a year ago at a cost to taxpayers of more than $155,800, Justice Department and Federal Aviation Administration travel records show.
Mukasey took so many trips to his home in New York on FAA, FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration planes that he was outside Washington a third or more of February, May, July, August and September. From November 2007 to September 2008, he traveled to New York 45 times, according to the records, which were released in late October in response to open records requests that McClatchy filed nine months ago.
Justice Department officials defended Mukasey's personal travel, saying that he has no choice but to fly on a government plane to see his family. Mukasey, unlike most other Cabinet members, is required to fly on government planes, rather than commercial ones, for security reasons, and he often worked from home, the officials said.
"When he travels personally, the attorney general pays what any other government official would pay for a commercial flight to that location," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. "It would be unfair to penalize financially the attorney general because he is one of the few government officials required to use government aircraft for all travel."
Mukasey traveled with his wife on 17 of the trips, and eight of them were with four or five other relatives. Most of the trips with his wife and other relatives were one-way between New York and Washington.
Mukasey reimbursed the government a total of $15,246 for all of his trips, based on round-trip coach fares, as he's required to do by government travel regulations. However, the cost of operating the Gulfstream G5s, Cessna Citations and de Havilland Dash 8-100s that Mukasey uses is tens of thousands of dollars more.
For example, the attorney general reimbursed the Justice Department $128.80 for a round-trip ticket to New York. The actual cost to the government, according to the department: $4,021.32.
In February, Mukasey flew to Orlando, Fla. with his wife and four other relatives. Under travel regulations, officials who are required to travel by government aircraft are permitted to take relatives with them as long as they reimburse the taxpayers for the equivalent coach fare, which Mukasey did, officials said. For that trip, he paid $2,173. The actual cost to the government, according to the Justice Department: $12,250.
Mukasey's personal trips appear to outpace those of other officials who are required to travel on government jets.
During the same time period, Defense Secretary Robert Gates took fewer than six personal trips, and he also reimbursed the government at coach fares. The Pentagon refused to release the details of the secretary's personal travel, but spokesman Bryan Whitman said that, "you can count on one hand" the number of personal trips Gates took in fiscal 2008.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who became one of the few officials required to fly on a government plane in 2004, didn't appear to have taken any personal trips in the last fiscal year, according to FAA records. His staff said he's taken about three personal trips a year during his four-year tenure and also has reimbursed the government for them at coach fare.
"The Secretary is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," wrote Laura Keehner in an e-mail response. "There is no time for frivolous trips when you are the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security."
All members of Congress used to fly commercial. But after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration authorized the speaker of the House of Representatives, who follows the vice president in the line of succession, to fly on military planes when they're available for official business.
A congressional official said that last year Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took 17 trips to her district on military planes. Pelosi isn't required to reimburse the taxpayers because such travel is considered official. The official asked to remain anonymous because such information isn't readily available to the public and Congress is exempt from open-records laws.
Last year, Pelosi was criticized because the House Sergeant at Arms requested a larger military aircraft for her trips to her district in California. House officials said the request was made so her plane wouldn't have to refuel.
Mukasey took the helm of the Justice Department in November 2007, after his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, resigned during the U.S. attorney firing scandal. Before he accepted the nomination, Mukasey told White House officials that he intended to spend as much time with his family in New York as the job allowed, Carr said.
Mukasey's wife has remained in New York rather than relocating to Washington because he expected to serve as attorney general for only a short time. He's been married for more than 30 years and has two grown children and grandchildren, whom he also visits.
Although he's said to travel frequently to see his family in New York, his wife and several other family members occasionally have traveled with him from Washington to New York. Carr said that's because his wife at times travels to Washington on commercial flights to attend official events and then returns with him to New York. Carr declined to release the identity of the other relatives, but FAA records show that his adult son, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren have flown with him.
In addition to the government's estimated cost, the government pilot sometimes returned to Washington without passengers after dropping the attorney general off. When Mukasey was ready to return to Washington, the pilot flew an empty plane back to New York to pick him up.
Although FAA records indicate that its pilots routinely flew an empty plane between New York and Washington to pick up or drop off Mukasey, Justice Department records don't document how often this occurred, if at all, on FBI planes.
Paul Orfanedes of the government watchdog group Judicial Watch said that Mukasey's personal travel appears excessive.
"Taking personal trips almost every weekend, at substantial cost to taxpayers, seems like an abuse of the privileges of office," said Orfanedes, who heads Judicial Watch's Litigation Department, which has sued both Democratic and Republican administrations for information under open-records laws.
Although Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight said she was "torn" about how to view Mukasey's personal travel because she said the policy that requires him to fly on a government aircraft makes sense, she added that, "He should be sensitive to the fact that it costs taxpayers enormously.
"I applaud his interest in his family, but that should not be at our expense."
As a federal judge in New York, Mukasey was criticized with another judge for the cost of his long-term security detail. Both judges had 24-hour security that cost as much as $6 million a year, including about $20,000 in rent paid annually to each judge because the security officers stayed in their homes.
Mukasey presided over several terrorism trials, raising security concerns, but after a group of U.S. marshals filed a complaint alleging that they were required to perform personal chores for the judges and their families, the security detail stopped. Justice Department officials declined to answer questions about the cost of Mukasey's current security detail, citing concerns for his safety.
Most government officials, such as the head of the FAA, are prohibited from taking personal trips on government planes. When those officials travel on official business, they're required to fly commercial in coach class unless they're traveling internationally, cannot find an appropriate commercial flight or can demonstrate that the cost of flying on a government plane saves taxpayers money.
Last year, for instance, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters flew commercial on 25 out of 42 trips she took on official business, according to travel records. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, she declines upgrades to business or first class, her staff said.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative and research arm, last reviewed travel by an attorney general in 1990 and reported that then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh had taken three personal trips in one year. GAO researchers recommended that the Justice Department and the FBI consider leasing a plane for all of the attorney general's travel because the FBI might be able to use its aircraft more often for investigative missions or get rid of planes it didn't need. Carr said the Justice Department considered the idea, but decided against it for cost and security reasons.
At times, government travel controversies have prompted administrations to tighten regulations. After the GAO found last year that government employees had inappropriately traveled by first class or business class at a cost of $146 million, the Bush administration ordered agencies to improve oversight of first class and business travel.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush overhauled travel rules after revelations that then-White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu had taken more than 70 trips on Pentagon planes over two years and miscategorized some personal or political trips as official. Amid the controversy, he also had a government driver take him to New York to buy rare stamps. Sununu, already unpopular within the Bush administration, eventually resigned.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY