Even in flush economic times, conference travel on the taxpayers' tab can come off as a boondoggle. Local commentator Joe Soucheray used to play this for laughs on the radio, putting in calls on summer days to Brainerd Lakes resorts to see which groups were booked for the weekend. The punch line all too often was a government agency.
Anger quickly replaces humor when the economy turns grim. When state lawmakers are weighing big budget cuts and tax increases, public officials need to scrutinize these trips more than ever. Public perception is also a consideration in this age of increased transparency in government spending. Travel to exotic locales won't go unnoticed. Even if it provides valuable training, it can do long-term damage to an otherwise worthy organization's reputation. That's one lesson from a recent Star Tribune story about the Metro Gang Strike Force sending six investigators to Hawaii for five days in March for the International Conference on Asian Organized Crime and Terrorism.
To be absolutely clear, the six investigators involved did nothing wrong. They followed proper procedures in seeking approval for the trip. The conference provided solid educational programs; Asian gang activity is a concern here. Forfeited funds from drug busts and other dealings paid for the conference. While not technically taxpayer dollars, forfeited funds belong to the public. The money wasn't wasted, but spending such a chunk at the Sheraton Waikiki at this time does not suggest good stewardship. Was it really necessary to send about 17 percent of the strike force's investigators?
What was most disturbing about the trip were the authority-flouting decisions made by the former and interim leadership of the strike force that led to its oversight board approving the trip after thousands had already been spent on it. The decisionmaking process suggests far greater problems within strike force operations than one $17,000 tropical trip. The initial decision to register staffers last fall appears to have been an end run around the board. It also appears that the strike force's interim commander and current second-in-command, Jim Heimerl, greenlighted airfare purchases after he was told not to by the strike force's new, cost-conscious commander Chris Omodt, who started in January. Asked how Heimerl could go around the boss and the oversight board to spend $5,776 for airfare, Omodt's answer implicated the agency's culture and operations. Said Omodt: "He just did.'' Heimerl said Wednesday he had been told not to comment on the trip, but he added: "It's all going to come to light what went on.''
It's not clear what Heimerl is referring to. But he's right in that answers are forthcoming. In October, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion issued a memo outlining concerns about how the strike force handles forfeiture funds, which have averaged more than $200,000 a year for the past three years. Campion's memo said that although he had no reason to believe there had been malfeasance regarding the funds, "there may not be an adequate record system to identify the source and disposition of these funds.'' That helped trigger an expedited review of the gang strike force's policies, procedures and processes by the state's respected Office of the Legislative Auditor. That report is expected to be released in about a month. The strike force's Hawaii black-eye will boost this report's profile and should spur those involved with the strike force to heed the auditor's conclusions and take action.