Fda Chief Says He'll Repay Inflated Taxi, Hotel Bills

WASHINGTON - A hotel room here. Dozens of excessive cab fares there. A government-discount plane ticket for the wife. For five years, Food and Drug Administration chief David Kessler submitted expense accounts riddled with nickel-and-dime overcharges in his favor, a review of records shows.

However, Kessler insisted yesterday that the errors were unintentional and said he has written an $850 check to cover anything he owes the government.

"Even while things are being corrected and so there can't be any questions, I've reimbursed the government based on preliminary figures," Kessler said.

Kessler earns $115,000 a year as FDA commissioner and reported assets worth between $700,000 and $1.77 million and liabilities of $335,000 to $700,000.

The Associated Press reviewed some $17,377 in federal reimbursements that Kessler claimed on travel vouchers from mid-1990 through spring 1995. More than a third ($5,732) was for cab fares for which he had no receipts. Many of the fares were far in excess of actual costs - in some cases two or three times.

The AP obtained Kessler's travel vouchers from government officials and the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative legal group which got them as part of a lawsuit. Kessler has been an aggressive regulator of tobacco and pharmaceuticals, placing him at odds with conservative lawmakers.

The review also found:

-- Kessler sought and received federal reimbursement for two hotel rooms that actually had been paid in total or part by outside groups. Kessler said he prefers never to allow groups to pay his expenses but was unaware of these payments.

-- Kessler misused his government credit card to purchase his wife a government-discounted plane ticket to join him for a night at New York's luxury Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during an official trip in December 1992. Kessler claimed $165 in federal reimbursement - the maximum amount allowed for New York - for the $300 hotel stay but did not seek federal reimbursement for his wife's ticket. Federal regulations strictly prohibit personal use of government-issued credit cards or discounts. FDA officials said Kessler did so on faulty advice from the department's ethics officer.

Kessler has served Presidents Bush and Clinton, and has won wide acclaim as point man on the government's war on teen smoking. He is the second FDA commissioner in a decade to be questioned about travel vouchers. Arthur Hull Hayes resigned the post in 1983 amid questions over a double-billed airplane ticket and $59 in misbilled expenses.

Kessler claimed nine cabs without receipts totaling about $200 during a March 1992 trip to California. He claimed a $25 ride from his hotel in San Diego to the airport; the hotel and two cabs companies said the ride would be no more than $8. He also claimed a $15 cab ride from the federal building to the city's convention center; a cab company said the ride would be no more than $5.

On trips to New York, Kessler claimed cabs rides of $28 between LaGuardia Airport and two nearby hotels. Both hotels said they provide a free airport shuttle and a cab ride was $5 to $8.

On more than 50 occasions, Kessler charged between $28 and $32 for cab rides from his suburban Washington home to National Airport. But the District of Columbia taxi commission, which regulates taxis, said the ride is no more than $22.

Kessler also charged $32 for a $15 cab ride from Washington's Union Station to his home.

FDA spokesman Jim O'Hara acknowledged several of the fares Kessler claimed were higher than they should have been but said the FDA chief, lacking receipts, "used the best of his recollection" or let his staff prepare the vouchers.