Barak slammed over travel expenses

Comptroller slams Defens

The Israeli government paid NIS 527,000 (EU 96,000) in hotel costs for Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an entourage of 15 people, including his wife, for a four-night stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris while attending the Paris Air Salon in June, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss revealed in a special report published Wednesday. The entire mission included the 16-person entourage headed by Barak, and a professional delegation of 34 army and Defense Ministry officials. Because the Defense Ministry office in Paris started looking for a hotel for Barak and his entourage too late, the government had to pay for six nights at the hotel, even though the Israeli mission stayed in Paris for only four nights. Barak's suite cost EU 2,500 per night. While the hotel costs for the 16-person entourage totaled NIS 527,000, the other 34 members of the Israeli mission, who stayed at another hotel, cost the state NIS 417,000 (EU 76,000.) Thus, the hotel cost of the entire Israeli mission was NIS 944,000 (EU 172,000.) Also because the Paris office started looking for lodging too late, the Intercontinental was the only hotel that met all the criteria established by the Ministry of Defense, even though it was one of the most expensive in the city. Barak was charged EU 2,500 for his suite for six nights, even though he stayed only four nights. The effective the cost of the suite was actually EU 3,750 per night. The state-comptroller compared the hotel costs this year to those of previous years. In 2005, the suite of then defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who stayed in Paris for three nights, cost was EU 1,641 per night, while the cost for the entire entourage, numbering 17, was EU 20,000. The following year, the suite reserved for former defense minister Amir Peretz cost EU 1,000 per night for six nights. The cost for the entourage, numbering 18, was EU 56,000. Last year, the government paid EU 1,800 per night for three nights for Barak's suite. The cost for the entire entourage, numbering13, was EU 25,000. Thus, the money paid for this year's visit to Paris by Barak and his entourage was almost twice as much as the previous most expensive visit by a minister of defense and almost five times as much as Mofaz's visit in 2005, although Mofaz and his entourage paid for only three nights. The state comptroller also found that the Defense Ministry reserved rooms for 58 people who were supposed to join the mission, but that only 50 actually showed up. Nonetheless, the government had to pay for all the rooms. Furthermore, some members of the mission did not stay at the hotel they were assigned to, but their rooms also had to be paid for. He also found that because the ministry had to rent the hotel rooms for six nights, even though it only needed them for four nights, it wasted NIS 313,000 of the tax-payers money. "There is no reason that the State of Israel, which has declared that it must reduce its expenses, should spend so much money on hotels and glamorous suites," wrote Lindenstrauss. "Such conduct, unfortunately, points to lack of public sensitivity, most certainly at a time when the state is in an economic crisis and many of its citizens are having a hard time supporting themselves. This situation can lead to substantial damage to public confidence in government." Lindenstrauss urged the government to set limits to the cost and standard of hotels that ministers and their entourage are permitted to stay in abroad. In response, the Defense Ministry said that immediately upon the delegation's return, Barak had ordered that steps be taken to prevent the recurrence of the failures that arose during the hotel room bookings, and that an inquiry team was set up. It said the team had recently submitted its recommendations for fixing the flaws mentioned in the state comptroller's report. The ministry stressed that although Barak himself was not directly in hotel bookings, he had instructed that any irregular expense requests go to him for approval. The Defense Ministry praised Lindenstrauss' remarks in the report concerning the importance of participation in the air show for advancing Israeli security exports, an industry the ministry emphasized had grown significantly over the last few years, makes billions of dollars a year for Israel, employs more than 100,000 people and enables the IDF to maintain a technological edge. State Control Committee chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima) called the State Comptroller's report "one of the most severe reports ever compiled on the misuse of public funds." "At a time when the Defense Ministry is getting a significant budget boost at the expense of welfare and education, ministry officials are enjoying luxury hotels and extras at the public's expense," said Hasson. "Defense Minister Ehud Barak was the main beneficiary… and he should have ensured out of his ministerial responsibility that such a flamboyant spending spree did not happen." Hasson said that the State Control Committee would convene in the next few days to discuss the report.