WASHINGTON – A new federal report has found that two-thirds of the first- and business-class flights taken for work by government officials are either improper or unjustified.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) study of 53,000 premium-class airline tickets, scheduled to be released Wednesday, found that 67 percent were not warranted. Investigators said that translates into $146 million in high-cost tickets paid for by taxpayers.

The report was requested by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who has long been using his position on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to spotlight abuses in government travel.

The issue first came to light in 2003, when a previous government audit discovered that Pentagon officials routinely booked top-dollar premium-class tickets rather than flying coach.

Subsequent audits found similar abuses in the State Department, which also had failed to reclaim $6 million in unused airline tickets.

New reporting requirements in the Defense Department have curbed abuses, Cole-man said. The “bad news,” he said, is that the problem persists throughout the rest of the federal government.

Almost all of the reported abuse – about 96 percent – involves business-class tickets, which are not subject to the same public reporting requirements as first-class seats but can still cost five to 10 times more than coach fares.

Coleman, joining a bipartisan group of senators led by Susan Collins, R-Maine, is pushing legislation to expand first-class reporting requirements to business class.

“Transparency has resulted in significant change,” said Coleman, who has been rebuffed in previous requests to the Office of Management and Budget to include business class in annual government reports. Under a bill wending its way through the Senate, new business-class reporting rules would take effect next year.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, looked at $230 million spent on 53,000 premium airline tickets between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006. It concluded that more than two-thirds of the trips did not qualify for premium-class tickets, meaning they were not properly authorized, were not of sufficient length, were not “mission critical” or did not meet other government criteria, which vary among different agencies.

Some agencies are exempt from federal travel regulations. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, permits members of its governing board to fly first class anywhere.

Government-wide, almost all the questionable trips involved overseas destinations, the GAO found.

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