ALEXANDRIA, Va.-A Credit Union Journal investigation has found disparities in how members of the NCUA board spend money on travel.
The review of travel records for the three NCUA board members comes at the same time as-but was not launched as a result of-the agency's proposal of a $14.5-million spending increase (6.1%) for 2013. Credit Union Journal launched its review prior to NCUA announcing its budget plans; moreover, board travel is a very small piece of that budget.
Board Chairman Debbie Matz and board member Michael Fryzel both said that prudent spending of credit unions' money is always top of mind, including on travel-related expenses.
However, a review of travel expenses of Matz and Fryzel, along with former board member Gigi Hyland, indicates noticeably higher spending by Fryzel, when compared with Matz and Hyland, primarily from 2011 forward.
Some expenses filed by Fryzel, who served as NCUA chairman before being replaced by Matz, include a $388 limousine ride, a two-day hotel bill of $1,550, and numerous daily food expenses between $150 and $200. Although fewer in number, travel records also show daily food-related expenses for Matz of over $100 and occasionally above $150, but many of those entries listed guests.
From 2009 to early August 2012, on food Fryzel spent $20,526.63, Matz $10,778.28, and Hyland $8,933.73. It should be noted there is no indication that Fryzel, Matz or Hyland have broken any government rules or policies.
Credit Union Journal obtained travel expense records of the NCUA board members via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The records revealed that overall in the four years up to August of 2012, Fryzel spent $109,182.99 on travel; Matz $81,523.12, and Hyland $71,551.35. Matz took over as chairman in August of 2009. During 2011 and 2012, Fryzel spent $67,845.58, Matz $50,302.22, and Hyland $27,196.43.
Fryzel lives in Chicago and flies to board meetings that are generally held monthly (see related story). Matz lives in the Alexandria area, as did Hyland while she served on the NCUA board.
Same Trip, Different Expenses
A close look at the expenditures, however, comparing some of the trips in which two or all three board members traveled to the same destination reveals more about each board member's spending. In February and March of 2011, while attending the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, Fryzel spent $1,657.95 for three night's lodging. Matz spent $1,116.39 for three nights. Hyland spent $647.13 for two nights. On food Fryzel spent $230.75, Matz $93.66, and Hyland $0. In March 2012, again at the GAC, for lodging Fryzel spent $2,720.54 for four nights, Matz spent $1,022.40 for three nights, and Hyland $373.27 for one night. Fryzel spent $747.79 for food, Matz $342.36, and Hyland $0.
In April of 2012, at the NCUA National Training Conference in Orlando, Fla., Fryzel spent $1,401.48 on food over 10 days, Hyland $364 for eight days, and Matz $437.06 over 10 days. Lodging costs for that meeting were not provided.
In July of 2012, attending the American Association of Credit Unions' (AACUL) Summer Meeting in Chicago, Fryzel spent $1,092.38 for two nights' lodging and $602.78 on food. Matz spent $279 for one night's stay and $55.53 on food. Hyland spent $279 for lodging and $106.50 on food.
Fyzel's food and lodging expenses tripled in 2011 and 2012 ($33,828.08), compared with 2009 and 2010 ($10,410.13). His transportation costs over those same periods, however, remained similar-$28,658.04 in 2011-12, and $24,874.73 in 2009-10. Annual expenses in all categories for Hyland and Matz did not show dramatic swings, except in Hyland's final year (she left the board in October 2012) when expenses in all categories sharply declined.
All board members' expenses released to Credit Union Journal were approved by NCUA's Office of the Executive Director, NCUA noted. The agency pointed out that NCUA board members are entitled to three times per diem if they claim actual expenses instead of per diem. The Federal Travel Regulation limits the maximum reimbursement amount for actual expense to 300% of the lodging per diem, plus 300% of the meals and incidental expenses per diem, NCUA reported.
How Per Diems Are Set
Per diem rates are set by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), and can be obtained by going to the GSA website (www.gsa.gov). Per diem rates vary greatly by city and time of year. Per diem for meals and incidental expenses is about $71 per day in cities such as New York City, San Diego, and Boston, and is $10 to $15 lower in towns such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Atlanta. Lodging per diem varies nationwide, on average, from the $200s per night in more expensive cities to the lower $100s.
Credit Union Journal spoke with both Matz and Fryzel about their travel expenses, while Hyland, having already left the board, was not included in the interviews.
Both Matz and Fryzel emphasized that traveling to the field is an important part of their jobs, and Fryzel added that since exiting the chairman's role he now has more time to travel to meet with credit unions. They, too, stated that travel expenses have been climbing for the board due to the need to get out into the field more-not only to share agency direction with credit unions, but to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing CUs as their operations complexity increases.
Both board members, but especially Matz, are frequently invited to speak at credit union industry events.
Actual Expenses Vs. Per Diem
When it comes to filing expenses, Matz told Credit Union Journal that she believes in using actual expenses, because that is the most accurate way to file an expense.
"There are a number of trips you can see in the records where we don't come up to the daily per diem limit," explained the chairman, who said she places importance on prudent travel spending. "For me, that happens often because I don't spend a lot of time in restaurants. I might get a bowl of soup here and a sandwich there when I am on the move. By not going by per diem, I am not taking more than I am spending, and taking more money from the Share Insurance Fund.
"There are other times, however, when we go over what per diem would be because of the demands of the situation," continued Matz. "We might go to dinner or lunch with credit unions or other stakeholders and chances are it will be more than that bowl of soup we often have. If I am choosing the restaurant, I don't choose the most expensive one. But going out to dinner and lunch is part of the job."
Fryzel asserted that his philosophy toward travel spending is if it's a legitimate expenditure, he claims it. "Whatever it takes to be at that particular location, that's what it costs. That's why it's actual expenses and why the receipts are there. I submit my receipts to my administrative assistant who then prepares the travel vouchers that go through our executive director's office where they are continually checked to make sure they are legitimate and within the limits allowed.
"During my first year as chairman I took per diem and found I was losing money, because it cost a lot more to eat and stay in places such as New York or San Francisco than per diem covered," said Fryzel. "Then I switched to actual expenses. You can't make it on per diem."
Still Using Per Diem Occasionally
Current travel records indicate that Fryzel will still occasionally file expenses, largely for food, under per diem. Fryzel also emphasized that he does not travel outside the U.S., as his records indicate. Matz traveled to Glascow, Scotland, in July 2011 for the World Council of Credit Unions World Conference ($1,379.2 airfare, $1,303.49 lodging). In July 2012 for the same meeting, Matz traveled to Gdansk, Poland ($1,623.20 airfare).
Hyland's travel outside the U.S. was a July 2011 trip to Halifax, Canada ($1,057.40 airfare).
Board Members & GAC
In the Freedom of Information request to NCUA, Credit Union Journal asked for expense receipts, but received instead travel vouchers, forms that detail employee travel spending but do not include receipts. As a result of not having access to board member travel receipts, Credit Union Journal asked both Matz and Fryzel for details on specific expenses.
In March 2012, Matz listed an expense for $1,022.40 for three night's lodging for this year's GAC in Washington. Since Matz lives in Mclean, Va., Credit Union Journal asked why the chairman spent three nights in a hotel near her home. Matz explained that any expenses within NCUA staff's "official duty station" are not permissible unless a waiver is granted for the expense. The duty station area is a 40-mile radius from the staffer's primary office.
"Any time you have a late meeting or an early morning meeting that, for the sake of efficiency, staying in a hotel is the best alternative, a waiver is often granted," explained Matz. "That was the case here. I was speaking at the GAC and attending several meetings early in the morning and in the evening during the week, and due to heavy and often unpredictable D.C. morning traffic, and the fact it was important that I make the meetings on time, I stayed in a hotel."
Matz noted that her office always takes advantage of any discounted room rate.
In April of 2011, Matz spent $2,319.40 on airfare to San Diego. She explained it was for a first-class seat that allowed her more leg room to elevate her foot.
"I had just gone through foot surgery and the doctor said I had to keep my foot elevated. The only way I could fly was first class. It was our senior leadership meeting that brought together all the supervisors and as the leader of the organization it was important for me to be there. I got a waiver and the expense was approved."
In March of 2012, Matz filed a $1,623.60 expense for airfare to Austin, Texas. "It was a quick trip planned without much notice and to get there and back quickly, which is what I needed to do, I had to fly non-stop. The late purchase and non-stop flight, along with generally high fares from D.C. to Austin, came to more than $1,600. It was for a meeting with our regions about some issues we needed to resolve."
In November Credit Union Journal checked the United Airlines website, the carrier used by Matz for the Austin trip, keyed in similar data-non-stop from Washington to Austin without any lead time and got back a standard-class fare of $1,556.
On Jan. 10, 2011, Matz listed a $275 food expense within her duty station area. "That was prepayment for the Herb Wegner Awards dinner coming up at the GAC," explained Matz.
At the request of Credit Union Journal, Matz's office provided receipts for the expenses questioned.
In looking at Fryzel's expenses, Credit Union Journal asked the former NCUA chairman about the July 2012 expense for the AACUL meeting, where he charged $1,092.38 for two night's lodging and $602.78 on food. Fryzel explained that he generally rolls up days of food expenses for one trip under one entry, as was the case with this trip, he said.
Chicago Is 'Expensive'
Travel vouchers show Matz and former board member Gigi Hyland do not roll up food expenses for multiple days under one entry. When asked if $602 isn't high for food costs for a two-night stay, Fryzel responded, "Chicago is one of the most expensive cities. What you see in that $600 is breakfast, lunch, dinner, what have you, for the entire trip."
By comparison, at the same meeting, Matz's food bill was $55.53 for a one-night stay that cost $279 for the room.
"She probably did not stay the entire time," said Fryzel about Matz's costs. "She may have come in a day later or something. I don't know. I saw her there but that does not mean she was there the whole time."
Fryzel's room charge was $546.19 each of the two nights on the Chicago trip. Asked if he booked in time to get the conference discount rate, he said, "As far as I know, yes. My administrative assistant makes the reservations and she tries to get me the best room rate possible."
Credit Union Journal contacted the Peninsula Chicago, the hotel for the AACUL meeting, and asked for room rates. On Nov. 15, the hotel's standard room rate, without taxes, was $495. Fyzel's travel voucher for the trip indicated the room was booked after the block of rooms set aside for the meeting were filled.
$400 Limousine Ride
In June of 2012, Fryzel traveled to New York County for a New Jersey League meeting during which he submitted $845.40 in taxi charges, including one for $388.40. "That meeting involved flying in to the airport and taking a limousine ride to the meeting location. Plus the meeting covered two days and two locations."
Asked if there were less-costly options than a $388 limousine ride, such as renting a car, Fryzel explained, "I was unfamiliar with the area and there is nothing worse than driving in New Jersey when you don't know your way. I had to be on time since I was speaking, and I did not want to make a wrong turn and get lost. This type of expense does not happen often."
Fryzel's travel voucher compared the $388 fare-as a less costly option-against costs for a rental car for three days and parking, quoted at $421 by the travel service used by NCUA.
From 2009 through August of 2012, Fryzel spent $10,589.85 on taxi charges-including $3,827.10 in 2012. Over the same period Matz spent $5,363 and Hyland $1,259.55.
Fryzel's hotel bills for the New Jersey meeting ran $1,550.34 for two nights, but he said that expense is not high for that area of the country.
There is a clear disparity in food expenses between Fryzel and the other two board members to be seen during the 2012 National Training Meeting in Orlando. Fryzel spent $1,401.48 on food over 10 days, Hyland $364 for eight days, and Matz $437.06 over 10 days. "For a week of eating out, three meals a day, it adds up," Fryzel said. "Again, Florida is not the cheapest place, especially in a resort-type area. That's not high for that amount of time."
In March 2012, again at the GAC, Fryzel spent $2,720.54 for lodging for four nights. Matz spent $1,022.40 for three nights. "If I recall, when we booked the room the hotel had already sold out the group of rooms for the event. So to get the rooms that is what we had to pay."
Housing at CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference each year gets scooped up fast once it opens for booking. Credit Union Journal asked Fryzel if staying on top of details that impact travel expenditures, such as booking conference rooms early, illustrates prudent use of credit union money and if he pays attention to such details.
"I hope my staff does," said Fryzel. "Apparently at this point in time (2012 GAC) they may not have. How can you say someone didn't do what they should have? I do not book my own rooms, and someone apparently did not do what they should have."
Fryzel's travel voucher indicated that the room was booked after the hotel's block of the rooms for the meeting were filled.
Subscribers can read related stories by going to www.cujournal.com and typing the following headlines into the search function: