Overseas travel by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $4.7 million and occupied 373 days of his five years in the top position, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. He has traveled more than 930,000 miles and visited more than 100 countries in that time period, according to data acquired by the AP.
Mabus has defended the travel as an essential part of his job, which requires him to travel far and wide to meet with foreign government officials, interact with service members and promote American interests around the world. "I think the return on investment for my travel has been phenomenal," Mabus told the AP.
He explained that important international matters such as whether naval vessels can be based in Spain are best settled in person. “You could do that in a phone call, I guess. You could send them a note," Mabus told the AP. "I don't think they take it nearly as seriously if you're not sitting across the table from them.”
But the size of his travel budget comes at a time when the Defense Department has undergone spending cuts and penny-pinching. Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told the AP that the recent budgetary issues at Defense make it “even more important that senior leaders scrutinize their travel and make sure that the travel they're doing is essential."
The emerging scandal over what some see as Mabus' profligacy is not the first time the former Mississippi governor has endured national scrutiny. In 2009, when Mabus was President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of the Navy, he was criticized for secretly recording his wife and a priest speaking and then using the tape against her during their bitter divorce, the New York Times reported.
The former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Vietnam War veteran steered the Navy through a period earlier this year of withering criticism over scandals surrounding its contracting practices. Multiple Navy officers have been charged with bribery in connection with allegations that they participated in a ploy to secure bribes in exchange for vital information about Navy ship movements and other naval operations, according to NBC San Diego.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh’s travel over the same number of years as Mabus' stint as secretary of the Navy has totaled less than half the cost to taxpayers, and the AP reported that McHugh has only traveled to 29 countries while occupying the position. But McHugh told the AP he is the one at fault when it comes to travel.
"I think a lot about the balance between the responsibilities of being here and the requirement to get out," McHugh said. "If someone were to ask me, have you traveled too little or too much -- I'd say too little. I don't think you can ever be briefed in the Pentagon in a way that provides you an accurate perspective the way you can just seeing it on the ground for 10 minutes."
As of Tuesday afternoon, Mabus had logged “932,129 miles traveled as SecNav visiting sailors and Marines,” according to a mileage counter posted on his homepage. An investigation of his travel was carried out by an inspector general, but the resulting report found no evidence of wrongdoing, according to the AP.