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Palin Claimed Travel Expenses for Nights at Home

The Washington Post reports this morning that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin frequently billed the state a per diem — meant to cover travel expenses on official business — for nights spent at her family’s home in Wasilla, Alaska.

The state also picked up the tab for the first family’s travel expenses when accompanying Palin on state business — and at least once when Palin’s husband, Todd, traveled alone.

First, the most glaring item:

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has billed taxpayers for 312 nights spent in her own home during her first 19 months in office, charging a “per diem” allowance intended to cover meals and incidental expenses while traveling on state business…

She wrote some form of “Lodging — own residence” or “Lodging — Wasilla residence” more than 30 times at the same time she took a per diem, according to the reports. In two dozen undated amendments to the reports, the governor deleted the reference to staying in her home but still charged the per diem.

My job requires me to travel frequently, and I have some experience with claiming travel expenses. I often expense taxicabs to or from airports and the occasional hotel room. However, if I tried to claim, say, my apartment or meals I’ve had here in Phoenix as travel expenses, I would probably find myself unemployed very quickly.

But wait, there’s more. According to The Post, Alaska was billed more than $43,000 for travel by Palin’s husband and children. Palin’s spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, defended the practice:

“As a matter of protocol, the governor and the first family are expected to attend community events across the state,” she said. “It’s absolutely reasonable that the first family participates in community events.”

The state finance director, Kim Garnero, said Alaska law exempts the governor’s office from elaborate travel regulations. Said Leighow: “The governor is entitled to a per diem, and she claims it…”

Asked Monday about the official policy on charging for children’s travel expenses, Garnero said: “We cover the expenses of anyone who’s conducting state business. I can’t imagine kids could be doing that.”

But Leighow said many of the hundreds of invitations Palin receives include requests for her to bring her family, placing the definition of “state business” with the party extending the invitation.

To be fair, Palin has greatly reduced her travel expenses compared to those of her predecessor, Gov. Frank Murkowski, who used the executive jet the state sold under Palin. However, The Post reports other governors have been more conservative with their per diem charges.

In the past, per diem claims by Alaska state officials have carried political risks. In 1988, the head of the state Commerce Dept. was pilloried for collecting a per diem charge of $50 while staying in his Anchorage home, according to local news accounts. The commissioner, the late Tony Smith, resigned amid a series of controversies.

“It was quite the little scandal,” said Tony Knowles, the Democratic governor from 1994 to 2000. “I gave a direction to all my commissioners if they were ever in their house, whether it was Juneau or elsewhere, they were not to get a per diem because, clearly, it is and it looks like a scam — you pay yourself to live at home,” he said.

Knowles, whose children were school-age at the start of his first term, said that his wife sometimes accompanied him to conferences overseas but that he could “count on one hand” the number of times his children accompanied him.

“And the policy was not to reimburse for family travel on commercial airlines, because there is no direct public benefit to schlepping kids around the state,” he said.

The article does not accuse Palin of wrongdoing. But, if she collected a per diem for 312 nights spent at her home, that’s more than half her total time as governor.

Some things are just basic cost of living. If regular, non-governing people couldn’t get away with it in their own lives, a governor who postures herself as a waste-cutting reformer should probably pay for her own expenses at home as well.

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