WASHINGTON — The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration spent more than $123,000 to charter a private jet to fly to Bogota, Colombia, last fall instead of taking one of the agency's 106 planes.
The DEA paid a contractor an additional $5,380 to arrange Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart's trip last Oct. 28-30 with an outside company.
The DEA scheduled the trip as the nation was reeling from the worst economic crisis in decades and the national debt was climbing toward $10 trillion. Three weeks later, lawmakers slammed chief executive officers from three automakers for flying to Washington in private jets as Congress debated whether to bail out the auto industry.
William Brown, the special agent in charge of the DEA's aviation division, said he'd asked DEA contractor L-3 Communications to arrange the flight because the plane that ordinarily would've flown the administrator was grounded for scheduled maintenance. He said he didn't question the cost at the time.
"Was it excessive? I guess you could look at it that way, but I don't think so," he said.
"I understand the concern about costs for these things. But we do our best to keep costs under control. I think the DEA is very conservative compared to other agencies."
Last fiscal year, the DEA's aviation division spent about $76 million. The agency flies its planes for law enforcement operations and drug surveillance throughout the nation and the world, according to the DEA's Web site.
The arrangement last fall was the first time that the aviation division hired an outside company for a flight, Brown said. Usually, the DEA flies one of its own planes.
If one of the agency's jets isn't available for official trips, the DEA can borrow one from another federal agency to avoid racking up unnecessary costs to taxpayers. However, Brown said that he didn't consider seeking a loaner plane from another federal agency, although he said he had at least a week to schedule the flight.
"It would definitely be more cost effective for us to borrow somebody else's resource," he said. "But they're going to have to pay for it, as well."
Government watchdogs, however, question whether the trip could have been rescheduled or whether Leonhart could've taken a commercial flight.
Steve Ellis, the vice president of the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that although the flight consumed a small fraction of the DEA's budget, the charter raised a red flag, especially because the agency paid an outside company to arrange it.
"It looks bad," Ellis said. "Clearly, the DEA or any federal agency should be watching their budgets more closely in these difficult times."
Brown said the administrator couldn't have taken a commercial flight because she and other officials who were traveling with her were under "specific" threat in Colombia at the time. He wouldn't reveal details about the threat, saying only that it was of a "sensitive law-enforcement nature." He added that the threat prompted him to conclude that "a government aircraft would provide a level of security not available on a commercial aircraft."
A U.S. official in Colombia, however, said that officials there weren't aware of any threat against Leonhart other than the general insecurity in the country due to the drug trade. The official wasn't authorized to speak to journalists and asked to remain anonymous.
L-3, which bills itself as the nation's sixth-largest defense company, has provided mechanical and transportation services to the DEA for more than five years. Last year, the DEA estimated that the services the company provided would amount to $20 million, but it ended up paying $32 million because of unforeseen special operations, Brown said.
L-3 spokeswoman Jennifer Barton said the company followed proper bidding procedures when it set up the flight by requesting bids from three companies. It received money for arranging the charter as part of its regular contract, Brown said.
Peregrine Point, a company based in Fort Worth, Texas, submitted the lowest bid, for $123,745, said Brown and Barton, who refused to reveal the identities of the other companies that submitted bids.
Peregrine, which employees 30 people and owns a Gulfstream 450 and a Boeing 737, opened last July. Randy Taylor, the company's general manager, said that his firm wasn't considered a government contractor, but he declined to answer any other questions, saying that the identities of other executives and the background of his company are confidential.
Despite the company's relative inexperience, Brown said that he didn't question the contract because he already was familiar with Peregrine Point. Before the bid, he said, he'd toured the company's hangar, which is next door to the DEA's aviation division at Fort Worth Alliance Airport.
"When the bids went out and Peregrine Point was selected, I was pleased, frankly," Brown said. "I wanted to see how they'd do because they seemed like a pretty squared-away outfit."
Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the DEA might have decided to reschedule Leonhart's trip or gone to another federal agency to save money if it hadn't already had a relationship with L-3.
"It's quick and dirty to go to someone you already know," he said. "But that's not how these things should work."
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