Fannie-Freddie regulator used U.S. resources for his travel

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Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's regulator may have a travel kerfuffle of his own.

Mel Watt, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, sometimes tasked FHFA employees with driving him and his wife to the airport for personal trips, and directed staff members to book flights unrelated to government business, the agency's inspector general said in a December 2016 report. An unredacted version of the document was obtained by Bloomberg News.

Watt, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, had FHFA employees make personal travel arrangements for him and his family 28 times, the watchdog found, adding that the requests were "inconsistent with standards of ethical conduct."

The report on Watt's travel was published online last year, but his name and key details — such as his destinations — were blacked out. FHFA Inspector General Laura Wertheimer conducted her investigation and wrote a report in response to anonymous complaints. Watt responded to questions about his use of FHFA resources at a House Financial Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

Travel controversies

While the travel habits of various agency leaders have generated controversy in Washington in recent weeks, there’s no evidence that Watt did what some Trump administration officials have been accused of: using taxpayer money to pay for expensive trips. Nor did Wertheimer conclude that Watt used FHFA funds to buy plane tickets for personal travel.

Watt told the House panel that when he joined the FHFA, other officials guided him on his travel practices and told him what was appropriate.

"I was told this was the policy," he said in response to a question from Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican. "It's just a coordination issue from my perspective."

Watt said FHFA had already implemented the inspector general's recommendations. Spokesmen for the inspector general’s office didn't respond to a request for comment.

Tom Price, President Trump's Health and Human Services Secretary, resigned last week amid an uproar over his use of private and military jets at taxpayers' expense. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has issued a memo ordering government agencies to seek approval from Chief of Staff John Kelly before most travel on government-owned or chartered planes.

Wertheimer said most of the trips Watt relied on FHFA employees to book were flights between Washington and North Carolina, where he is from. On one occasion, an FHFA staff member made reservations for Watt, his wife and his mother-in-law for a family trip to Puerto Rico. When Watt returned from Puerto Rico, an FHFA employee drove to Philadelphia to pick him up at the airport and took him back to Washington.

No punishment

The inspector general didn't recommend any punishment for Watt and said that senior FHFA officials didn't understand the agency policies involved. Wertheimer said the FHFA should stop using employees to book personal travel for Watt and train employees on the agency's rules.

FHFA General Counsel Alfred Pollard, who responded to the inspector general’s report in March, said the FHFA agreed with all the recommendations and had already addressed them.

Bloomberg News
Compliance GSEs Mel Watt FHFA Fannie Mae Freddie Mac