With just a half dozen or so employees in Chicago, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency has a small local footprint.
But it’s raising big questions after the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago News found a number of curious expenditures involving out-of-town trips, pricey hotel stays and hundreds of taxi fares that cost taxpayers $23,000 over a little more than two years.
Although MBDA officials refused to answer many questions, they said they are conducting a “review” to see whether any of the spending violated federal rules or otherwise was inappropriate.
But here’s what a months-long BGA/FOX review found, through interviews and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act:
— Six federal employees submitted more than $23,000 in taxi reimbursements for just over two years. Some of those rides were for only a few blocks in downtown Chicago, and one was as short as two blocks. Some federal employee took cabs home from work, on the public’s dime. No receipts were turned in for the vast majority of the rides, and the federal government doesn’t require receipts for fares less than $75.
— The head of the MBDA’s Chicago office, Eric Dobyne, spent $548 in taxpayer money on cab expenses during a five-day business trip to Miami, and $312 on taxis during a two-day business trip to Detroit.
— Five members of the MBDA’s Chicago office booked different plane tickets and hotels, and used different cabs, to attend the same conference in Washington, D.C. Altogether they spent more than $2,000 on cab rides during that visit.
— During a three-day business trip in 2009, Dobyne stayed in a luxurious Washington, D.C., hotel that cost taxpayers nearly $500 a night, including tax. The government excused the high rate because, according to a memo Dobyne submitted, “there were no government rate rooms available,” apparently because of a “city-wide defense contractor convention.”
— Officials with the MBDA’s Chicago office took business trips to China, Germany and Kenya, but refused to say what, if any, economic benefit those visits produced. Meanwhile, they rarely if ever visited some Midwestern states under their domain.
Reached on the phone in recent months, Dobyne said: “We don’t have anything to hide . . . we haven’t done anything wrong.”
But MBDA spokeswoman Bridget Gonzales refused to respond to numerous inquiries, including written questions submitted in March.
The agency’s national director, David Hinson, was reached on his cell phone – after the number was provided by a source – and described his group as “extremely good stewards of taxpayers’ money.” He said he wasn’t equipped to answer questions, and directed the BGA to the MBDA’s web site and its annual report, which showed 611 jobs were created by the MBDA in Illinois from 2009 to 2011.
Still, the Chicago office is among the regional MBDA offices slated for closing or consolidation, although officials insisted that had to do with efficiency, not the questionable oversight and spending.
(It’s worth noting Dobyne’s pay increased from nearly $125,000 a year in 2007 to $145,000 in 2011, records show. Another employee saw her salary spike by $35,000 in the same period.)
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said he was surprised to hear of the BGA/FOX travel findings. “Clearly someone didn’t get the memo that we’re trying to save money around here,” Quigley said. “Mass transit in Chicago and Washington, D.C., is relatively low-cost and saves taxpayer dollars.”
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, another Illinois Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he doesn’t know much about the MBDA, and can’t recall ever interacting with the agency.
“It’s almost like a stealth entity,” Davis said.
Told about some of the questionable spending, he said it “seems off the chart” and “bizarre.”
He’d like to see a “serious” investigation to ensure nobody’s misusing taxpayer money.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Commerce Department said the agency is reviewing the Chicago expense reports and therefore unable to comment on specifics for now.
This story was written and reported by the BGA’s Robert Herguth, and Dane Placko and Patrick McCraney of FOX Chicago News. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9030.