The House Education and the Workforce Committee sounded a decidedly contentious note in its final hearing of the 106th Congress, with Republicans grilling Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley on financial-management practices at the Department of Education and the secretary’s travel schedule, and Democrats accusing their GOP counterparts of using the event for political gain.
Questions about the propriety of some of Mr. Riley’s government-paid trips first surfaced in August, following the publication of a news story in The Washington Post. The article reported that Mr. Riley had visited the congressional districts of 10 House Democrats this year who face tough battles for reelection, but that he had made no such trips to Republicans’ districts. Government money cannot be used to pay for campaign-related travel.
Shortly after the story appeared, congressional Republicans asked the secretary for a breakdown of his expenses for all of his official trips in the past several years. (“Republicans Question Purpose of Riley Trips,” Sept. 13, 2000.)
During the Oct. 25 hearing, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, asked Mr. Riley to explain his activities. “Would you be willing to admit that your travel planning involved targeting vulnerable Democratic members?” he said.
“My answer to that is no,” Mr. Riley said. “We have a standard we go by. ... I’ve made literally hundreds and hundreds of visits.”
Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, the panel’s ranking Democrat, suggested that the hearing was “designed to score political points.” And, Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., whose district was visited twice by Mr. Riley this year, also came to the secretary’s defense. “I think it’s outrageous that you would dignify the charges,” Mr. Holt said. “Secretary Riley is not being political. He’s being a good secretary.”
After controversy arose over his travels, Mr. Riley appeared with Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., at an event in her district.
Reps. Boehner and Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., both pushed the secretary and other department officials at the hearing to explain why it had taken so long for Mr. Riley to appear with Republicans.
Scott Fleming, the assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs, said Mr. Riley’s visit to Rep. Johnson’s district was originally planned for April, but could not fit with her schedule.
The secretary’s travel practices were also defended by Steven Y. Winnick, who has served as the Education Department’s designated ethics official since 1986, under GOP and Democratic presidents. “I am absolutely satisfied that both the letter and the spirit of the law have been upheld,” he wrote in an Oct. 24 letter to the panel.
The hearing also explored financial-management practices at the department and recent instances of alleged fraud there.
The department has been unable to achieve a clean financial audit for the past two years. In addition, agency officials said this year that department employees and contractors involved in a theft ring stole more than $300,000 in electronic equipment and collected $600,000 in false overtime pay between January 1997 and December 1999. Investigators also allege that several individuals stole nearly $2 million in impact-aid funding recently.
Mr. Riley blamed the audit problems on kinks in a new computer system at the department. The system—which will handle accounting and financial management at the agency—should be fully in place next year.
But the secretary’s statement prompted some concern from Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga.
“Should we send more money over there until you get this great system in place?” he asked.
During the hearing, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich, the chairman of the committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, indicated that committee members were briefed last week on two new cases of potential fraud at the agency, which he said sounded as serious as the other cases that have come to light in recent months.
But Mr. Riley replied that the new allegations—details of which were not disclosed at the hearing—are “not anywhere close to being equal” to the prior cases.