Pa. Treasurer Running for Governor Spends Big on Travel

Saturday, 03 May 2014 08:30 PM

By Andrew Staub, Watchdog.org

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Since the Omni William Penn Hotel opened in 1916, the Pittsburgh landmark has served as a resting spot for movie stars, dignitaries and several presidents, including John F. Kennedy.

It even has the distinction of hosting President Dwight D. Eisenhower and former President Harry S. Truman on the same day in 1956.

Those days were long ago, but Pennsylvania has its own prominent politician who is fond of the over-sized executive desks, marble baths and Steel City views the hotel offers. State Treasurer Rob McCord, one of four Democratic candidates for governor, has stayed at the Omni at least 27 times since he took office in 2009.

When McCord gets the government rate, it’s a relative bargain — about $131 a night, according to credit records that provide a glimpse of how taxpayer money is spent on an everyday basis.

But on at least 10 occasions when that discount wasn’t available, the treasurer used his state credit card to pay for rooms that sometimes cost between $283 and almost $400 a night, according to statements obtained through an open-records request. Those stays cost taxpayers an average of about $362 a night.

The expensive stays aren’t relegated to Pittsburgh. McCord has racked up pricey hotel costs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and even just outside Harrisburg. Some stays have topped $600.

In the context of the state’s $28 billion budget, the expenses are minuscule. But that doesn’t mean they come without concern from taxpayer advocates. The expensive hotel stays send a message that elected officials are “distinct and above taxpayers,” said Eric Epstein, founder of the government-reform group Rock the Capital.

“The taxpayers should not be underwriting luxury accommodations for state business trips,” Epstein said, adding that best practices should be to keep costs low.

The Treasury’s own travel policy echoes such a thought. It says, “Employees traveling on official business must exercise prudent and cost-conscious judgment in incurring expenses.” That raises the question of why McCord would stay at hotels that can surpass $300 a night.

McCord declined an interview request made through Treasury spokesman Gary Tuma, who responded on his behalf.

“Treasurer McCord is careful with state dollars. He applies the same standards to his own travel as he applies to the department overall, which is to operate in the most cost-effective and efficient way possible,” Tuma said.

McCord travels statewide when needed to carry out his duties, Tuma said. In some cases, that means administrative meetings at the Treasury’s Pittsburgh office or meeting with local community groups and other officials in Western Pennsylvania, Tuma said.

The treasurer’s travels often take him to Scranton, too, thought he stays in a hotel that usually costs less than $100 a night.

Tuma also pointed out McCord has taken steps to save money within his department, which has 130 fewer people than when he took office. The treasurer doesn’t accept a state vehicle or take reimbursement for mileage, tolls or repair costs when using his own vehicle, Tuma said. That saves more than $12,000 a year.

The treasurer has also kept his yearly expenses lower than the annualized rates of his predecessor, Robin Wiessmann, who racked up $25,783 in expenses in 2009 and $12,492 during the eight months she held the office in 2007, according to Tuma.

McCord has spent an average of $10,962 on expenses each year — and just $4,512 last year, according to figures from Tuma.

Some expenses ‘totally inappropriate’

While McCord takes advantage of the government rates at hotels to save when possible, they discount is not always available, Tuma said, indicating that location to events or meetings plays a large role in selecting where the treasurer stays.

Sometimes, higher occupancy rates can drive up rates, and circumstances can demand last-minute reservations that aren’t subject to discounts, Tuma said.

Other times, McCord is simply staying in expensive hotels, such as the four times he checked into the Sofitel in New York. The 30-story boutique hotel in mid-town Manhattan, where some staff speak both English and French to add to the Parisian flair, has cost taxpayers between $548 and $674 a night, records show.

Generally, McCord stayed there to meet with current or prospective asset managers, Tuma said.

“New York City is expensive,” Tuma said, adding that the average cost of a one-night stay during the same period was almost $300 and occupancy rates were higher while McCord was there.

“The treasurer stays at a hotel that is safe, clean, and centrally located to meetings and events so as to save additional transportation costs, which in Manhattan could exceed the $200-$300 price differential from the average hotel room cost,” Tuma said.

Epstein, though, questioned why asset managers aren’t traveling to McCord and said technology — such as Skype or conference calls — could alleviate the need for travel at all.

Even stays close to Harrisburg, the state capital, can be expensive. In May 2010, McCord spent $431 for a one-night stay at the Hotel Hershey in town to deliver a Penn State University commencement speech.

McCord stayed there, Tuma said, because it was near the Giant Center in Hershey, where the ceremony occurred. Epstein called that expense “totally inappropriate.”

“How does the taxpayer benefit from the treasurer spending a night at the Hotel Hershey? What’s wrong with the Econo Lodge?” Epstein asked.

According to credit card records, McCord also charged $403.97 for a one-night stay at The InterContinental in New York for a National Association of State Treasurers event and $384.47 for a one-night stay at the Hilton New York on Nov. 29, 2010, for department business. Two other stays in Washington, D.C., each topped $300.

Those prices sometimes aren’t far from average lodging cost in the areas, Tuma said.

Reimbursements raise questions

In some instances, McCord has refunded taxpayers for travel expenses charged to his state credit card.

On July 14, 2011, the McCord Committee, the treasurer’s political organization, reimbursed the state $672.64 for airfare and lodging related to the Robert F. Kennedy Compass Program conference in Hyannis, Mass. He had charged the trip to his state credit card the previous month.

In 2010, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights reimbursed the state $492.11 for airfare from Philadelphia to Hyannis and back after McCord initially used his state card.

The Compass Program brings together institutional investors to explore the importance public-interest considerations play in investment risk management, according to the RFK Center’s website.

In another case, the McCord Committee cut a check for $584.80 in 2012 to pay for expenses the treasurer charged to the state in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to attend the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner in Scranton. That included a flight from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre in 2010 and lodging each year.

“In an abundance of caution, the costs were reimbursed because they were not, in the opinion of the treasurer, costs that were substantially related to a governmental purpose,” Tuma said.

Epstein said it’s hard to understand why Treasury business would require a trip to the Friendly Sons event.

“He’s the treasurer. He’s not a cultural attaché,” Epstein said.

In February, McCord reimbursed the state $142.50 for a January stay at the Omni that was inadvertently charged to the incorrect account, Tuma said.

In the end, a need for caution

When considering the expenses, it’s hard to begrudge McCord a decent hotel and convenience, said Cindy Hamill-Dahlgren, director of strategic communications for the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a right-leaning think tank.

Still, she said, tax revenue should be viewed as a “precious commodity.”

“Every tax dollar should be spent wisely,” she said, “and the state treasurer — or any politician — should take that into consideration every time he spends a dime.”

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