The California Department of Veterans Affairs is taking issue with a recent CBS report that CalVet officials have racked up a hefty travel bill despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 2011 ban on “nonessential” government travel.
The CBS investigation said California Department of Veterans Affairs executives have been charging California taxpayers even when their trips do not meet the definition of mission-critical. But CalVet disputed this report, saying the department has cut travel costs and turns down “many” trips because they don’t count as mission critical.
J.P. Tremblay, CalVet’s deputy secretary for legislation and communications, told The Washington Examiner that CalVet Secretary Peter Gravett determines what counts as “essential travel” on a case-by-case basis, but the department does not necessarily have written guidelines for executives to follow.
“Nonessential” events may include parade appearances, realtors’ meetings and Chamber of Commerce meetings, among other things, Tremblay said.
However, an exception may be made if there is an opportunity to meet veterans and fulfill the department’s mission of providing them with benefits, he added, noting allowed travel is supposed to be “mission-critical” and such a trip would meet CalVet’s mission.
An event might be deemed essential or mission-critical “if it will produce a partnership or some kind of result,” Tremblay said. These might include meetings with nonprofits and businesses about how they can help veterans, or events helping provide veterans with benefits.
Many of these events are in Southern California, where the majority of the state’s veterans live. CalVet does have offices in Southern California, but executives are located in Sacramento for proximity to the state government, Tremblay said.
CalVet has cut travel costs by more than $40,000 when compared with the last year of the previous administration, Tremblay noted. He added that executives pay their own expenses when their travel is not required by work, and have even paid out of pocket for work.
CBS reported that, according to their investigation, 90 percent of CalVet Undersecretary Robin Umberg’s trips violate Gov. Brown’s April 2011 mandate:
Executive Order B-06-11 stipulates that “conferences (even those that historically have been attended), networking opportunities, … non-essential meetings that can be conducted by phone or video conference” and “events for the sole purpose of making a presentation” are not mission critical.
But records show most of Gravett’s trips are exactly that — and therefore prohibited by the governor’s orders.
Tremblay disputed this claim, telling The Washington Examiner, “the Department and the administration determine what is mission critical, not the news media.”
“In the case of Undersecretary Umberg she has spent more than $25,000 of her own money to travel since she has been appointed to this agency,” he added.
He said officials do stay at their own homes occasionally when they travel, but do so to avoid hotel costs.