Among Georgia’s state workers, the top 39 in expenses for travel and dining each tallied at least $50,000 last year.

Dozens of Georgia state employees tally tens of thousands in expenses

Curtis Foltz, the ex-director of the Georgia Ports Authority, spent an average of $137,500 each year on expenses. He traveled the world — Amsterdam, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Houston — selling the logistical virtues of the ports of Savannah and Brunswick to retailers and shipping lines. He traveled comfortably.

International flight found Foltz in business class with round-trip airfares from Savannah through Atlanta to Europe or Asia running upwards of $15,000. He preferred moderately priced Hyatt or Marriott hotels in Tokyo, Seoul or Berlin.

In this country, though, Foltz sometimes stayed in premium hotels — the Ritz-Carlton, the Cloister, the New York Athletic Club. He also showed a fondness for chauffered cars and fine dining while entertaining clients, according to receipts obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Georgia’s open records act.

In all, dozens of state employees, including university presidents and researchers, wrack up tens of thousands of dollars in expense account billings each year, the AJC discovered. The top 39 spenders tallied at least $50,000 each in expenses last year.

Foltz wasn’t the biggest spender; Jeffrey McCreary, a researcher at Georgia Tech spent $142,000 in fiscal 2015.

“Government officials are supposed to be stewards of taxpayer money,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington. “We should not be looking for them to stay at the cheap motel or get by on fast food. By the same token, it seems like they are lavishing luxury travel, hotels and meal on themselves. That’s not responsible.”

Big pay and perks are nothing new in the ports business and academe. Doug Marchand, Foltz’s predecessor in Savannah, routinely stayed at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York, held memberships at private golf and dining clubs, and ran up $93,000 in expenses in 2001, according to a previous AJC investigation.

Foltz walked away from the authority’s top job in June with nearly $2 million in compensation. Currently a GPA consultant, at $470,000 a year, Foltz, 56, will receive $630,000 a year in special executive-level pension each year for the rest of his life, the AJC reported in August.

In addition, the top 10 executives at the GPA each earned more than $200,000 last year.

Gov. Nathan Deal labeled Foltz’s compensation package “exorbitant.” But GPA board members defend the pay and perks as necessary to retain top talent that could be lured away by other ports or shipping lines.

Georgia’s ports earn their money from fees paid by shipping lines to handle cargo. They liken the quasi-public agency to a private business, one that supports thousands of Georgia jobs and provides $16 billion in economic impact. Foltz, during his six-year tenure as CEO, saw revenue climb from $267 million in 2011 to $346 million this year.

Port operations and most expenses, including the purchase of cranes and truck cabs, come from fees paid by the shipping lines. Yet Georgia and federal taxpayers are ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars to deepen the Savannah River, build roads and other infrastructure that will greatly enhance port operations and profits. The ports pay no state or local property taxes. And any surplus revenue could go into the state’s general fund.

“At the end of the day, the results speak for themselves,” Foltz told the AJC last week. “Do the math. It’s an incredibly small number for a CEO of an international organization whose business is defined by overseas requirements and customers and partners. We spent the money wisely.”

Foltz traveled maybe 100 days a year as executive director to drum up business, mollify customers and attend conventions. He ran up $132,359 in expenses in fiscal 2015, most spent on a handful of overseas trips.

Airfare cost the bulk of that amount. Foltz, for example, joined the governor and other business recruiters on a five-day trip to Brazil in June of that year. Delta Air Lines charged $12,939 for his Savannah-to-Atlanta-to-Rio-to-Sao Paolo-to-Atlanta-to-Savannah ticket.

Foltz paid $15,138 earlier in the year to travel from Savannah to Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai. As usual, he traveled business class.

The state’s travel policy allows business class travel for international flights. But the State Accounting Office also stipulates that “travelers on state business should always select the lowest priced airfare that meets their approved, most logical itinerary.” Delta recently offered a round-trip, economy-class Atlanta-to-Rio ticket for $1,616.

Foltz typically spent between $400 and $800 a night on hotels overseas, a not-too-outlandish amount in Tokyo, Berlin and other expensive cities. Domestically, though, he ran up some eye-raising sums attending conferences at The Cloister on Sea Island ($349 per night) or the New York Athletic Club ($491 and $508) where “guests are expected to dress in a refined manner at all times.”

State policy allows an employee attending conferences to “incur lodging expenses that exceed the rates generally considered reasonable.”

The policy, though, does not spell out business meal expenses. Foltz occasionally entertained clients, consultants and other port-related businessmen and their wives at fancy restaurants. The Foltzes and two other couples ran up a $695 dinner bill at the Tavola restaurant on Sea Island in July 2014. The Foltzes joined union leader Willie Seymore and his wife at Elizabeth’s on 37th Street in Savannah. Cost: $458.

Meals and gifts from lobbyists in Georgia are capped at $75 in value, although there are many exceptions to the cap.

Foltz also had a penchant for chauffered cars. He’d often hire a car service to take him from his Savannah home to the airport ($78) or vice versa ($88). Trips to or from the state capital to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport ran $70 or $80 each. One day he hired a car, at $356, to ferry him across south Atlanta.

State guidelines say employees should seek “the most cost-effective method of transportation that will accomplish the purpose of the travel.” State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, a House budget subcommittee chairman, questioned the high-priced travel.

“None of us travel that way,” he said. “The people of Georgia don’t travel that way.”

They do if they work at Georgia Tech. Nine of the top 10 spenders across the University System of Georgia worked at Tech, according to the AJC investigation. Most did research for the U.S. Department of Defense.

So-called “sponsored” research, not paid by the university, covered about three-fourths of travel expenses, Tech officials said. But 96 percent of that amount is sponsored by the state or federal government, so it’s still taxpayer money.

Cheryl Dozier, the president of Savannah State University, was another big traveler. The state’s Department of Audits and Accounts put her travel tab at $59,446 — 13th-highest among University System staffers.

Loretta Heyward, a school spokeswoman, said the university found discrepancies in what was initially reported to the state. The true figure, she said, should be $37,334. Yet that’s still more than the combined travel expenses listed for University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby, Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson and University of Georgia President Jere Morehead.

Heyward said Dozier travels “to promote and represent the university in the areas of fundraising, student recruitment, economic development and international partnerships.” Heyward said the president has also served on national higher education committees and built relationships and attended conferences in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

A year earlier, Dozier expensed $73,478.

Ehrhart, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the University System’s budget, wants an investigation into travel spending.

“That seems, on the face of it, to be outside the norm,” he said.

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