When there was a "dispute resolution workshop" in Turin, Italy, in February 2012, for example, FMCS deputy director Allison Beck was there, at a cost of $2,037.
The Turin visit was just one of many official trips taken by Beck, the second-ranking leader of an obscure 220-person agency that became the focus of a congressional investigation last year following the Washington Examiner's reporting of massive evidence of corrupt contracting and widespread personnel abuses.
Beck was back in Europe in June 2012 for an American Bar Association meeting in Paris. The ABA reimbursed FMCS $1,000 "towards cost of attendance at this conference under terms of ABA Development Fund fellowship."
But the trip cost $5,570.
From Paris, Beck took the train to Geneva, riding first class in order "to be able to get work done," according to her expense report.
She went to Geneva to meet the "new director of social dialogue section" of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency designed “to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, [and] enhance social protection.”
In addition, Beck was to lecture the Swiss on "FMCS LM relations and conflict resolution training programs," and to do something that apparently could only be done by traveling to Europe: use video conferencing to discuss "joint training projects," the expense report said.
As it was with Beck's Italy trip, the purpose of the Paris excursion was “staff development,” according to the form.
John Arnold, an FMCS spokesman, said staff development activities are funded by fees FMCS charges companies and unions, and that it sometimes was reimbursed at least partially by groups like the ILO.
Two weeks later, Beck was off on a $4,189 business trip to Tunis, Tunisia, followed in the next two months by an excursion to an island off the coast of Georgia, then to Montreal for the "international labor agencies meeting."
On the way to Montreal, Beck stopped in Toronto for a personal vacation, noting that doing so was "cheaper than to go Montreal."
In July, Beck's itinerary included a lake in Missouri, then an August vacation jaunt to New Orleans, with FMCS footing the travel bill since she stopped in Nashville for the Tennessee Labor Management Conference.
On that trip, Beck enjoyed a $111 "car service from home to airport" on top of an upgraded flight home.
“The Vietnam and Bangladesh travel was funded under interagency acquisition agreements between FMCS and the departments of state and labor to assist developing market economies and current or potential U.S. trading partners with effective industrial relations,” Arnold told the Examiner.
In September, Beck headed to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for the Labor Relations Advisory Committee conference, allowing that private group to foot the bill for perks to the government official.
Beck flew first class, at a cost of $1,900, saying "the only seats available on the return were in first class."
While there, Beck went to the Maine Labor Employment Relations Association conference. Those two trips cost $2,879.
Then-Director George Cohen was also an FMCS frequent flyer, with a one-night trip to New York in September costing $1,500, and one-night trip to Cleveland for a "managers meeting" in April costing $1,000.
A $2,081 FMCS reimbursement to Cohen had no documentation of what was paid for in the records provided to the Examiner.
Like others, director of human resources Adam Ramsey frequently turned FMCS-paid trips into time off, like a $1,693 trip to Fort Lauderdale where he took a vacation day and weekend there, a $1,627 trip Minneapolis where he added a four-day weekend onto his trip, and a $1,917 one in Montreal where he took two vacation days.
The Examiner obtained travel records for 2012 under the federal Freedom of Information Act. FMCS officials always paid travel agents to help book their trips.
Information technology staffer James Donnen, who lives in West Virginia and rarely reports to work at his office in Washington, took a $2,000 trip to Las Vegas Jan. 9-13, while Ramsey and others went to Atlantic City for the "33rd Arbitration Symposium" Sept. 5-7.
Director of arbitration services Vella Trayham, meanwhile, had just returned from trips to the Annual Labor-Management Conference in Houston, the Pacific Northwest Labor Arbitrators Conference in Seattle, the Minority Professionals in ADR conference in Ohio and the "Advocate-Arbitrator Symposium, of which FMCS is a co-sponsor," and other variants in Las Vegas, Atlanta, St. Louis, and elsewhere.
The extensive travel by its top officials came despite FMCS having employees working in offices across the country. But the non-Washington FMCSers also accumulated extraordinary travel expenses.
Blake's travel bill was $3,000 for March, $3,500 for April and $2,735 in May, according to the expense reports.
Many of the trips taken by Blake and others working at FMCS were for meetings with officials from other federal agencies.
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Federal Workers Max Out at Taxpayer ExpenseA five-part series by the Washington Examiner watchdog team
Tuesday: Bureaucrats at tiny agency buy legions of luxuries with purchase cards
Wednesday: Reckless FMCS spending goes straight to the top
Thursday: FMCS heads forced whistleblower to retract fraud complaint
Friday: Federal officials cede authority to outsiders who write own contracts
Monday: FMCS fired wounded warrior whistleblower after ICU stay
Data: FMCS salaries and bonuses
View the whole series
Got tips?Do you know more about what's going on at the FMCS -- or any other federal agency? Contact Luke Rosiak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FMCS co-sponsored several such intra-governmental conferences, including the Institute of Continuing Legal Education Conference near Detroit. John Pinto, then director of the group of offices near Michigan, spent $2,885 traveling around that region in April.
When Pinto traveled to New York City, he stayed at the Hotel Millennium Hilton for $499 a night.
Arnold said that the conference travel was advertising for the agency’s existence.
“Since mediation is a voluntary process, all mediators are required, as one of their key performance elements, to conduct extensive outreach to labor and management to inform them of the full range of FMCS services,” Arnold said.
“Mediators last fiscal year ... conducted more than 2,000 training programs,” Arnold said. “Mediators conduct highly interactive training in such essential skills as active listening and accurate communicating, creative/collaborative problem-solving and demonstrating mutual respect.”
Arnold said that, because strikes are costly to the economy, the money spent by FMCS is well worth it if it can help avoid work stoppages.
Last October, the Examiner reported that FMCS officials spent tens of thousands of tax dollars at jewelry stores, regularly used government credit cards to circumvent contracting rules and buy luxuries such as $600 stereos and $1,900 televisions and routinely bought suspiciously marked up items such as $500 thumb drives.
The Examiner's reporting spurred a continuing investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Then-director Cohen resigned in the wake of the Examiner stories.