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Former U.S. attorney for L.A. criticized for his travel expenses

Thomas P. O'Brien stayed at costly hotels and justified his reimbursement by telling his secretary to falsely state more affordable rooms were unavailable, a federal audit finds. O'Brien reimburses the government.

November 12, 2010|By Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times

Former U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien stayed at pricey hotels while traveling on business and then sought to justify reimbursement by telling his secretary to falsely state that more affordable rooms were not available, an audit made public this week alleges.

O'Brien was one of five U.S. attorneys whose travel expenses were singled out in the report by the Department of Justice's inspector general. The report found that some of O'Brien's claims for reimbursement were "inappropriate and egregious violations" of the travel policies that govern federal prosecutors.

O'Brien, now in private practice, denied engaging in any misconduct, but said he takes "full responsibility" for any oversights that resulted in his exceeding approved spending limits. He added that all his travel had been approved by officials in Washington, D.C. Though he had not been asked to repay any money, O'Brien said, he wrote a check Tuesday to pay for cases in which he stayed in rooms that cost more than the approved rate.

O'Brien, who served as U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from October 2007 to September 2009, denied telling a secretary to make any false statements.

Reviewers examined the records of 208 people who served in one of the 93 U.S. attorney posts nationwide between 2007 and 2009. Auditors identified 16 people for closer examination due to the significant number or percentage of claims for reimbursement above the government rate, the report said.

O'Brien was one of five top prosecutors who "exhibited a noteworthy pattern of exceeding the government rate and whose travel documentation provided insufficient, inaccurate or no justification" for doing so. Of 23 hotel vouchers O'Brien submitted during his tenure, six were for more than the allowable rate and provided insufficient justification. The total overage was $903.

The report noted that near the end of his tenure, after having been told he should pay the difference between the government rate and the cost of a room at a preferred hotel, O'Brien did so for his lodging at a conference in Palm Springs.

O'Brien was identified only as "U.S. Attorney D" in the 34-page report, but confirmed to The Times that that designation referred to him. The report detailed several instances in which he allegedly rejected approved hotels in favor of his personal preference.

In one case, O'Brien, who lives in Los Angeles, was scheduled to speak at a morning conference in Anaheim. He booked a hotel to avoid the morning rush hour commute. But rather than book a room at the conference hotel for $143 a night, he chose a room 20 miles away in Newport Beach for $349 a night.

The inspector general's report said O'Brien "provided no explanation" as to why he did not stay in Anaheim.

On another occasion, O'Brien had his secretary book a room at the hotel where a conference he was attending was being held, but told her to book a room that exceeded the conference rate so he could have a better view, the report states.

In such instances, the secretary told auditors, O'Brien told her to write that the conference-rate rooms were "sold out" to justify the more expensive lodgings.

When interviewed by investigators, O'Brien blamed his secretary for selecting the more expensive rooms on her own and denied telling her to misrepresent the reason for the increased expenditures, the report states. If she said otherwise, O'Brien told investigators, "it was to cover her own misconduct."

The investigators did not find such claims "credible or persuasive," the report said.

"We do not believe that the secretary would have taken these actions on her own initiative," the report states.

In an interview Thursday, O'Brien denied blaming any one individual in his office for anything.

scott.glover@latimes.com

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