GAO questions reimbursements to USO for some celebrity tour expenses
STUTTGART, Germany — A General Accounting Office report has raised questions about how the Department of Defense reimburses the United Service Organizations for entertainment it provides soldiers deployed overseas.
The 40-page GAO report, released last week, criticized some of DOD’s reimbursements and identified $433,000 in questionable USO expenditures after examining the details of six celebrity tours from fiscal years 2000 to 2002. The GAO did not identify which tours had the problems.
So far, the DOD has recovered about $19,000 from the USO for the overseas tour expenses.
USO spokesman John Hanson said Wednesday that the DOD should have charged the USO back for the payments it should not have paid for in the first place.
He added that since fiscal 2002, the USO has hired a full-time person to handle the contracts and other billing issues regarding the military.
The reimbursement problems included more than 50 business- and first-class tickets worth about $76,000 for celebrities; the use of a limousine service and an airport lounge that cost $3,054; and $343,910 for unsupported production assistance and celebrity honorarium payments, which are used to help celebrities with day-to-day tour expenses; and other miscellaneous expenditures.
More specific problems included reimbursing one unnamed celebrity $27,000 without supporting documents and paying one unidentified production tour manager $56,520, again without any detailed supporting documents.
The flights in question included trips to Frankfurt, Germany; Cairo, Egypt; Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan; Athens, Greece; several cities in Italy; and Istanbul, Turkey.
Because the entertainers donate their time, the USO will fly them first-class internationally and business-class within the United States, Hanson said, something DOD guidelines would not allow. He added that last year, the USO sponsored roughly 60 celebrity tours overseas, and had 12 tours alone from Thanksgiving until now.
“We know how important this is to our servicemembers,” he said.
The Armed Forces Entertainment Office, which is run by the Air Force, did not have an immediate answer to the GAO report, said Jacquelyn Hampton, an Air Force spokeswoman.
However, in the GAO report, the DOD acknowledged the problems and said it would follow GAO advice to improve management and oversight of the USO contracts, as well as develop written procedures consistent with DOD and federal travel regulations.
The report examined only the USO World Headquarters in Washington, which operates the USO’s overseas entertainment tours.
The USO is a congressionally chartered, nonprofit agency; however, significant chunks of its funding come from the Defense Department.
Nearly every month, the USO brings a dozen or more entertainers to visit troops stationed around the world. In the past few months, for example, it has brought actor and comedian Robin Williams and actors Daniel Stern, Ben Affleck and Tom Green to military personnel in the Middle East.
The USO also provides travel services, phone cards and other troop support services.
In 2002, the most recent figures available from the USO’s Web site, the organization spent about $46 million on programming, with $4.8 million going toward entertainment.
GAO investigators said they believed if the USO’s auditors had checked internal controls, they, too, should have found the problems.
The DOD relies upon the Armed Forces Entertainment Office to deliver overseas entertainment. In turn, the entertainment office contracts with the USO, which gets celebrity entertainers to perform for free or at reduced rates at overseas locations.
Ordinarily, according to the report, the DOD pays back the USO for honoraria, which are daily allowances paid to the celebrities, tour managers and producers, production support and administrative costs.
The USO also would pay for some of the costs related to the entertainers that the DOD will not pay, such as the difference between business- class and first-class airline tickets, and travel costs for individuals accompanying the performers.
The USO gets funding from businesses and individual donors, too.
The GAO investigators said that because of limitations in the way the DOD and USO keep records, they could not determine exactly how much the federal government supports the USO. But from fiscal 2000 through 2002, the DOD provided at least $34.7 million in direct USO support.