Obama admin political appointee takes heat for trips home on taxpayers’ dime

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Americans for Limited Government is raising questions over 13 trips Obama political appointee Ron Sims made to his home city of Seattle during his first several months as deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“It certainly raises questions about the legitimacy of these trips – were these frequent trips to Seattle something his position at HUD required of him, or were they thinly veiled excuses to return to his old stomping grounds to carry on some ‘business as usual’ at federal taxpayer’s expense,” ALG staff attorney Mark Wohlschlegel told The Daily Caller in an email. “Deputy Secretary Ron Sims is just one more example of Obama’s appointees that come to office under-qualified, with a controversial past.”

Sims’s travel vouchers, obtained by Americans for Limited Government (ALG) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, detail just how much time Sims was spending in Seattle, how he got there and why he went.

In total, Sims spent $19,026.13 on his trips that went through or to Seattle as a member of the Obama administration from May 2009 through August 2010. During that time, Sims spent 45 out of 128 travel days, or about 35 percent, in Seattle.

On May 26, 2009, for example, just several weeks after Sims joined the Obama administration, he was already traveling to Seattle on personal business. Sims did a “meet and greet” at the local HUD office, which was enough to land him a taxpayer-paid-for $592.43 flight back to D.C. and $40.50 in per diem sustenance, or meal costs.

“Traveler was in the Seattle, WA, area on personal business,” reads Sims’s travel voucher for that day. “When the HUD Regional Office learned that he was in the area, he was asked him [sic] to visit the office for a meet and greet. Therefore, the one-way airfare returning to Washington and per diem for 05/26/09 will be paid by the department.”

Sims went to Seattle again on June 9, 2009, and stayed there until June 14, 2009. He was “on official travel” on June 9, then took “personal time” on June 10 and June 11. He shifted back into “official business” mode on June 12 to give a keynote speech at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs. According to the university’s website, that commencement event was one hour long. Sims then took another personal day in the Seattle area on June 13, 2009, before returning to D.C. on June 14.

On that trip, Sims also conducted an “interview” with the “Partnership for Sustainable Communities,” had a meeting with “Project Green” and did another meet and greet with a regional HUD office.

On July 6, 2009, Sims was on “personal business” in Seattle again. He launched a government trip from there through Phoenix and Las Vegas, flying to Arizona on July 6. Sims justified starting in Seattle by showing, on his travel vouchers, that he’d saved the government $344.60 in doing so.

In Phoenix, he toured the Salt River Indian Community and visited the local HUD office. Then, on July 7, Sims drove with to Las Vegas in a personal vehicle and stayed overnight “at no expense to the government.” He returned to Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2009. While in Las Vegas, Sims’s vouchers say he “toured areas funded by HUD recovery initiatives,” went to a press conference, visited the HUD-funded Lamar Homes and went into the Las Vegas regional HUD office for a meet and greet.

In late July 2009, Sims embarked on another multiple city trip, starting in D.C., then going to cities including Portland, Oregon, Philadelphia, Nashville and Memphis. First up was Philadelphia on July 23. Then Sims went to Portland, Oregon on July 24. At 2 p.m. that day, Sims ended his “official business” and went on “personal travel” to Seattle. Two days later, on July 26, 2009, Sims resumed official business and traveled from Seattle to Tennessee to visit Nashville and Memphis. According to his travel vouchers, he did not participate in any official business during that hiatus in Seattle.

In late September and early October, Sims did it again. On September 29, 2009, Sims visited a field office in Spokane, Washington, before heading to Anchorage, Alaska, for a press event. He then went from Anchorage to Seattle on October 1, where he remained until October 4. Sims’s travel vouchers say he stayed in Seattle “at no expense to the government.” Sims’s stated reason for going to Seattle for three days was to attend a Healthy Homes Conference and U.S. Conference of Mayors event.

In late October 2009, Sims returned, yet again, to his native Seattle. After giving a speech at the Bay Area Association of Governments and meeting with the San Francisco Foundation in northern California on October 21, he went to his home city the next day. His official reason for going there was that he was going to participate in the White House “Urban Affairs Listening Tour” and go to the “Beyond Oil Conference.” His travel vouchers show he took more personal time from October 23, 2009, to October 25, 2009, while in Seattle.

Within weeks, Sims found another reason to visit Seattle on “official business” before taking additional days of “personal business” while there. On November 5, 2009, Sims left Washington, D.C. for Seattle to speak at Central Washington University. He stayed in Seattle on “personal business” from November 6, 2009 until November 8, 2009, when he left Seattle for Arizona, then New York.

On February 4, 2010, Sims traveled to Seattle yet again to “attend the New Partners Smart Growth Conference.” He stayed in Seattle “with family at no expense to the government” from February 4 through February 7, when he returned to D.C. During this trip to Seattle, Sims took a brief day-trip to Reno, Nevada, on February 5 to visit the HUD field office, “tour facilities” and meet with “stakeholders.”

In April 2010, Sims traveled with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to several cities nationwide to speak about HUD’s “role assisting minority contrators [sic] and small businesses.” He left D.C. for Chicago on April 22, 2010, then headed to Portland, Oregon, later that day. On April 23, 2010, Sims went to Seattle where he stayed for four days, before departing for Tucson, Arizona, on April 26, 2010. The next day, he left Tucson for Albuquerque, New Mexico, before heading back to D.C. the day after.

On May 19, 2010, Sims traveled to Seattle yet again to give a speech and meet with stakeholders. He stayed there until May 23, 2010, when he left Seattle for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to visit the local HUD field office before heading back to D.C. on May 24, 2010. According to Sims’s travel vouchers, he spent $302 on meals during that six-day trip.

In early June, Sims returned to Seattle again. After going from D.C. to Las Vegas to Honolulu to Dallas to Seattle from May 31, 2010, to June 3, 2010 on a trip meant to visit local HUD field offices, Sims spent from June 3 to June 6 in his native Seattle. Then he went to Portland, Oregon, before returning to Washington, D.C., on June 7.

Sims visited Seattle yet another time later in June 2010. From June 24, 2010, to June 27, 2010, Sims was on official business in his home city. According to his travel vouchers, the reason he went to Seattle and spent $177.50 on meals over four days was because he was giving a keynote speech at a National Association of Counties (NACO) conference.

In late July 2010, Sims used taxpayer money to get halfway to Seattle from Washington, D.C. He attended a press conference in Denver on July 28, 2010, then, according to his travel vouchers, went on to Seattle using “personal funds.” The vouchers say Sims used “personal funds” for his return trip to Washington, D.C., too.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown denies any malfeasance on Sims’s part. “Every trip taken by Deputy Secretary Ron Sims was in response to a formal speech or forum participation request,” Brown said in an email to TheDC. “Sims also managed to visit nearly every HUD field office nationwide in conjunction with the requests. Prior to any travel, each request was reviewed by HUD’s Office of General Counsel. Once the travel was completed, HUD travel reimbursement specialists reviewed the pay submissions to ensure complete conformity with the Government Travel Regulations.”

Brown also said “it’s a little late to count” how many speaking requests from other cities Sims denied, saying other “sustainability/green experts” likely filled them, including “in many cases our assistant secretaries.”

Brown added that taxpayers didn’t directly pick up any costs from Sims’s stays in Seattle. “Mr. Sims’ stays in Seattle were at no additional costs to the taxpayers since he was not paid per diem during the off duty time,” Brown said.

ALG does not suggest Sims did anything illegal, but the frequency of the trips do raise concerns, the group says.

“It raises questions as to how these appointees are conducting themselves in their current positions,” Wohlschlegel said.

Sims recently announced he’s leaving the Obama administration at the end of July so he can spend more time with his family in Seattle.