Pubdate: Mon, 16 Feb 2009
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2009 Star-Telegram Operating, Ltd.
Author: Marisa Taylor
Cited: Drug Enforcement Administration


WASHINGTON -- The head of the Drug Enforcement  Administration spent
more than $123,000 to charter a  private jet to fly to Bogota,
Colombia, last fall  instead of taking one of the agency's 106 planes.

The DEA paid a contractor an additional $5,380 to  arrange Acting
Administrator Michele Leonhart's trip  last Oct. 28-30 with an outside

The DEA scheduled the trip as the nation was reeling  from the worst
economic crisis in decades and the  national debt was climbing toward
$10 trillion. Three  weeks later, lawmakers slammed chief executive
officers  from three automakers for flying to Washington in  private
jets as Congress debated whether to bail out  the auto industry.

William Brown, the special agent in charge of the DEA's  aviation
division, said he had asked DEA contractor L-3  Communications to
arrange the flight because the plane  that ordinarily would have flown
the administrator was  grounded for scheduled maintenance. He said he
didn't  question the cost at the time.

"Was it excessive? I guess you could look at it that  way, but I don't
think so," he said.

"I understand the concern about costs for these things.  But we do our
best to keep costs under control. I think  the DEA is very
conservative compared to other  agencies."

Last fiscal year, the DEA's aviation division spent  about $76
million. The agency flies its planes for law  enforcement operations
and drug surveillance throughout  the nation and the world, according
to the DEA's Web  site.

The arrangement last fall was the first time that the  aviation
division hired an outside company for a  flight, Brown said. Usually,
the DEA flies one of its  own planes.

If one of the agency's jets isn't available for  official trips, the
DEA can borrow one from another  federal agency to avoid racking up
unnecessary costs to  taxpayers. However, Brown said he didn't
consider  seeking a loaner plane from another federal agency, 
although he said he had at least a week to schedule the  flight.

"It would definitely be more cost effective for us to  borrow somebody
else's resource," he said. "But they're  going to have to pay for it,
as well."

Government watchdogs, however, question whether the  trip could have
been rescheduled or whether Leonhart  could have taken a commercial

Steve Ellis, the vice president of the nonprofit group  Taxpayers for
Common Sense, said that although the  flight consumed a small fraction
of the DEA's budget,  the charter raised a red flag, especially
because the  agency paid an outside company to arrange it.

"It looks bad," Ellis said. "Clearly, the DEA or any  federal agency
should be watching their budgets more  closely in these difficult times."

Brown said the administrator couldn't have taken a  commercial flight
because she and other officials who  were traveling with her were
under "specific" threat in  Colombia at the time. He wouldn't reveal
details about  the threat, saying only that it was of a "sensitive 
law-enforcement nature." He added that the threat  prompted him to
conclude that "a government aircraft  would provide a level of
security not available on a  commercial aircraft."

A U.S. official in Colombia, however, said officials  there weren't
aware of any threat against Leonhart  other than the general
insecurity in the country due to  the drug trade. The official wasn't
authorized to speak  to journalists and asked to remain anonymous.

L-3, which bills itself as the nation's sixth-largest  defense
company, has provided mechanical and  transportation services to the
DEA for more than five  years. Last year, the DEA estimated that the
services  the company provided would amount to $20 million, but  it
ended up paying $32 million because of unforeseen  special operations,
Brown said.

L-3 spokeswoman Jennifer Barton said the company  followed proper
bidding procedures when it set up the  flight by requesting bids from
three companies. It  received money for arranging the charter as part
of its  regular contract, Brown said.

Peregrine Point, a company based in Fort Worth, Texas,  submitted the
lowest bid, for $123,745, said Brown and  Barton, who refused to
reveal the identities of the  other companies that submitted bids.

Peregrine, which employees 30 people and owns a  Gulfstream 450 and a
Boeing 737, opened last July.  Randy Taylor, the company's general
manager, said his  firm wasn't considered a government contractor, but
he  declined to answer any other questions, saying that the 
identities of other executives and the background of  his company are

Despite the company's relative inexperience, Brown said  he didn't
question the contract because he already was  familiar with Peregrine
Point. Before the bid, he said,  he had toured the company's hangar,
which is next door  to the DEA's aviation division at Fort Worth
Alliance  Airport.

"When the bids went out and Peregrine Point was  selected, I was
pleased, frankly," Brown said. "I  wanted to see how they'd do because
they seemed like a  pretty squared-away outfit."

Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the DEA might  have decided
to reschedule Leonhart's trip or gone to  another federal agency to
save money if it hadn't  already had a relationship with L-3.

"It's quick and dirty to go to someone you already  know," he said.
"But that's not how these things should  work."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin