The Air Force plans to ask Congress for significantly more control over its civilian auxiliary, the Civil Air Patrol, following an audit that questioned tens of millions of dollars in patrol spending and flawed accounting practices.
The Air Force Audit Agency’s review of the patrol’s 1996 spending only deepened Air Force officials’ concerns about what they consider years of questionable management practices and lax flying safety and professionalism, according to officials at the Pentagon.
The audit agency report concluded that the Civil Air Patrol:
• Improperly spent more than $100,000 in payroll expenses.
• Billed the Air Force about $1.4 million for liability insurance while simultaneously billing its own wings for the same insurance.
• Spent more than $20,000 for private telephone lines, pagers, cellular phones, calling card charges, and fax lines.
• Spent between $56,000 and $233,000 more in appropriated funds to run an in-house printing plant, justifying the additional expense with incorrect cost comparisons.
• Was improperly reimbursed anywhere from $15 million to $27 million for the purchase of corporate aircraft and cars that, according to the audit agency, were not properly justified.
Patrol officials denied any improper spending and argued that the purchases were both needed and permissible.
Service officials and auditors were to meet with patrol officials throughout April in an effort to hammer out problems.
At the patrol’s headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, officials said they consider the Air Force’s move toward accountability a power grab that would demoralize, if not ruin, the volunteer organization, said a patrol spokeswoman.
“The Air Force knows how to run the Air Force. The Air Force does not know how to run a volunteer organization,” Mary Nell Crowe said in an April 8 telephone interview.
But a senior Air Force official said service officials have been concerned for years about the way a private corporation is running the partially tax-funded operation.
“We’re concerned about $30 million in taxpayer money, and how (the patrol) is spending and accounting for it,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“You’ve got power here, and money here,” ingredients that, unchecked, can be abused, said another senior Air Force official.
The patrol, the official auxiliary to the Air Force, trains young cadets and educations civilians on aviation. It is more widely known for its emergency search operations to locate downed aircraft or missing people.
For the Air Force, the patrol conducts damage assessment flights, radiological monitoring, light transport, communication support and low-altitude route surveys, according to the patrol.
Service officials said the problems appear to have begun in 1995, when the Air Force reduced from 250 to 73 the size of the its active-duty group overseeing and advising the patrol. The oversight group is known as Civil Air Patrol-U.S. Air Force, or CAP-USAF.
Officials now believe they may have cut so many people that the group no longer can adequately oversee the patrol. It left the Air Force “on the outside, looking in,” as one official put it.
The patrol itself is run by Civil Air Patrol Inc, a non-profit, non-governmental corporation overseen by a 67-member national board.
The CAP-USAF commander sits on the board, something the audit agency cited as a conflict of interest. That’s because it put him in the position of making decisions on patrol purchases that, afterward, he was to authorize.
The auditors determined that CAP-USAF was not able to properly oversee patrol spending, resulting in $2.3 million of Air Force money going toward unauthorized reimbursements to the patrol.
“We still see the need to recognize what everyone agrees is a basic premise of organizational management,” said Bryan Sharratt, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force. “To the extent that the Air Force has responsibility in (the patrol), we should have commensurate authority.”
Congress chartered the patrol in 1946.
But it may be difficult to get Congress to authorize greater active-duty oversight over the patrol officials said. The patrol, which has volunteers in every state, successfully fought has past attempts to reduce its multi-million budget.
The campaign already is under way. In an April 4 email message to about 100 people connected in some way to the Civil Air Patrol, one patrol official called for “a congressional blitz” to torpedo the Air Force plan.
But Sharratt said the Air Force is less interested in directly controlling the patrol’s budget than in having the patrol adopt more accountable spending and bookkeeping systems.
“The Civil Air Patrol always said that they felt the regulations (governing spending and accounting) did not apply to them, but if it did it would be too cumbersome and expensive to comply with,” Sharratt said.
An Air Force official said the patrol believes it would cost about $3 million to comply with the reporting rules. He said that as long as the patrol is taking Air Force money and benefiting from its relationship to the Air Force, it is going to have to follow the rules.