11.17.11

Eric Holder's Caribbean Trip an Ill-Advised Junket, Critics Say

Attorney General Eric Holder is spending a week in the Caribbean in the name of improving law enforcement. But some in Congress say it’s the kind of junket that should be scrapped under Obama’s new austerity program.

Just days after President Obama announced a new austerity program to save billions in federal spending and travel, his attorney general, Eric Holder, is spending five days on the taxpayer’s dime hopping around Caribbean islands in the name of improving law enforcement in the region.

Holder’s stated mission for the trip was to sign law-enforcement agreements with authorities in the area and review a case resulting in the seizure of condos from a Medicare fraud sting in the region, substantially smaller than the department’s usual pursuits prosecuting massive Wall Street fraud, terrorists, and murderers. He also held a summit with other attorneys general in the region and will attend an international conference devoted to promoting democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

Lawmakers who huddled in a rainy, gloomy Washington on Wednesday waiting for an elusive deal to finally emerge to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit were not amused by the fact that Holder was staying at Hilton and Hyatt hotels in the tropical climates of the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and Trinidad. Specifically, they questioned why Holder needed five days in the region.

“One would think that agreements could be signed on a more abbreviated schedule that saves the attorney general time he continually indicates he doesn’t have, as well as taxpayer money,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who recently tangled with Holder over a federal gun sting in which the government let weapons flow to Mexican drug cartels.

The Medicare sting at the center of Holder’s visit recovered $37.5 million for the U.S. government, an impressive amount lost to fraud. But it’s peanuts compared with the usual work of the Department of Justice, which last year recovered more than $4.4 billion in judgments, settlements, and restitution.

Holder’s defenders were pushing back a bit Wednesday. Sure, Holder has had some of his nights free after 7 p.m. while in the islands, but he’s only been able to see the beach from his hotel window. And it hasn’t all been sunshine and lotion.

One aide traveling with him related how at dinner Tuesday night Holder ate at a small fish restaurant cooled by mechanical fans in Barbados. When a monsoon approached, waiters dropped plastic drapes to keep the deck from flooding, the aide said.

The timing, however, probably could have been better for political optics. Late last week, Obama launched the latest volley in his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, signing an executive ordering federal agencies to rein in spending—specifically to rely more on teleconferencing to limit unnecessary travel, and to issue fewer cellphones and laptops. Obama promised the effort would save $4 billion over the next several years.

“We’re cutting what we don’t need so that we can invest in what we do need,” the president said in announcing the initiative.

Holder left for the Caribbean on Monday and returns Friday. He is spending his time in the islands signing a series of agreements with local leaders and attending an annual conference hosted by the Organization of American States, a union that includes most nations in North America and South America.

'We’re not going to the tourist parts of these places.'

Holder’s office provided Newsweek a detailed schedule of the attorney general’s official events. On it are several bilateral meetings with Holder’s counterparts in each country, and specific conferences about issues such as money laundering, drug trafficking, and immigration that affect America.

Holder is staying at chain hotels in each of the three countries—all nations with high poverty rates. A Justice spokesperson traveling with Holder said the trip is far from a vacation where one would sit on a beach drinking cocktails with umbrellas. “We’re not going to the tourist parts of these places,” the official said.

Correction: An earlier copy of this report stated Holder was inspecting condos seized in the Medicare sting. No visits to the residential units were planned, according to Holder's office. The Beast regrets the error.