Profiting From Government Travel

A union official was investigated for double-billing for travel expenses. A court upholds her removal.

Ms. Williams was Chief Steward of Local 31 of the American Federation of Government Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This position required frequent travel to both government and AFGE events. In her union capacity, she was given a flat per diem rate for travel that typically exceeded the government rate. Since she was president of the local, she exercised that authority to pay herself and other union executive board members a higher rate for government travel than what the agency paid them, supplementing the difference from union funds.

Agency regulations prohibited reimbursement of travel expenses by the agency where the union had already paid those expenses. Ms. Williams did not disclose to the agency her practice of supplemental payments from union funds to bring reimbursements up to the higher union per diem rate for government travel. Nor did she reimburse the union funds when the agency reimbursed her expenses. In effect she was being paid twice for the same travel. (Opinion p. 2)

Ms. Williams ended up being investigated by the national office of AFGE for double billing and embezzlement of union and agency travel funds. When the facts came to light within the agency, she was removed for private gain and for falsification of government documents.

When Ms. Williams appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Administrative Judge ultimately sustained 14 of the 15 charges and sustained her removal. (p. 3) She appealed to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. (Williams v. Department of Veterans Affairs, No. 06-3021 (non precedent), 3/13/06)

The court found that the agency provided “substantial evidence” that Ms. Williams obtained actual private financial gain, citing the 14 different occasions on which she supplemented her travel reimbursements and received reimbursement from both the agency and the union. (p. 4) As to the charge of falsification of government documents, the court cited as “her intent to mislead” the agency the fact that Ms. Williams had certified on her travel vouchers that she had not received payment from a secondary source when in fact she had. (p. 5)

In short, the court affirmed Ms. Williams’s removal by the agency and the Board’s decision upholding that removal.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.