Saturday, June 29, 2013

High Cost of VIP Travel: Biden's $665,545 Hotel Bill in Moscow, Obama's $450,000 Warsaw Tab

    The Washington Times reports that the cost of President Obama's Africa trip, estimated as high as $100 million, is overshadowing President Obama's agenda.  If past trips are any indication, lodging and local transportation would represent only a fraction of $100 million, yet those costs would likely dwarf those of the average citizen traveling abroad.  Revelations in late March of Vice President Joe Biden's $321,000 limo bill and $585,000 Paris hotel bill for his trip to Europe earlier this year caused a stir even among veteran White House observers such as CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
    While the amounts spent were deemed fairly ordinary by current and former government insiders, the fact that the closely-held information was found on a publicly available government website had some speculating that perhaps the postings had been inadvertent.  However, further investigation has revealed that the information is not as rare as previously supposed.
    For example, Vice President Biden's trip to Moscow in 2011.  The contract was awarded to the Moscow Ritz-Carlton on February 24, 2011 and , according to the accompanying Justification and Approval (J&A), the estimated cost for 1,778 room nights was $665,545.  As has been noted before, contracts for travel for high level government officials are not subject to the same requirements for competitive bidding as other government contracts due to security concerns:

The vice president's visit to Moscow lasted two days and was said to focus on economic issues and missile defense concerns.
    Although Vice President Biden's foreign travel costs have received most of the attention lately, some details for at least two of President Obama's trips from his first term are available online.  The first was a trip to Warsaw, Poland in May 2011.  The J&A estimated the cost for 2,114 lodging room/nights at the Warsaw Marriott at $450,000.  Due to the special needs of the president and his entourage, the costs included extras such as "Removal and storage of furniture from standard rooms":

The stop in Poland was part of a week-long swing through Europe that included stays in Ireland, Great Britain, and France.  Details of lodging arrangements for the other stops on the trip were not available  The president spent one night in Warsaw. 
    Details of an earlier presidential trip to Prague in 2010 are also available.  At $163,000, the Prague contract  with Marriott initially appears to be a bargain compared to other trips.  However, a closer look shows that the Marriott was being used "simultaneously with the Hotel Hilton (which was the main hotel for the event...)"  The J&A for the Marriott was for only 287 nights (with more than 40 late check-out fees), but also included rentals of three plasma TVs, a pin-board, and a FAX machine:

    The contract for the main hotel, the Hilton, were not found on the website.  The president spent one night in Prague.
    Lodging and transportation costs for First Lady Michelle Obama's ill-fated trip to Copenhagen in 2009 to bolster Chicago's bid to host the Olympics were found online as well.  The costs for this trip have already garnered some attention after it took the State Department 26 months to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch.  While the documentation finally released to Judicial Watch was fairly extensive, it turns out at least some of the information was posted at FBO.GOV as early as November 25, 2009.  According to the J&A (Justification and Approval), the estimated cost for 103 rooms at the Scandic Copenhagen hotel was $430,285.70:

    On January 19, 2010, a contract for the same trip was posted for vehicles & buses provided by Copenhagen Limousine Service for $200,629.  According to the J&A, the trip included a possible visit from the president as well.  The document also includes some interesting insights about the scheduling of such trips and the security-related restrictions (and related increased costs) that are imposed in these cases:

    The president did end up traveling to Copenhagen to join his wife in her efforts and to address the International Olympic Committee, but arrived in Copenhagen and returned to Washington on the same day, Friday, October 2, 2009.  The first lady spent two nights in Copenhagen, arriving on Wednesday of that week and departing to Washington with her husband on Friday.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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