First class plane tickets, five-star hotels, a private tour of an Italian convent – it sounds like a dream vacation. But for Iowa’s Economic Development Director, it’s just another day on the job. Debi Durham likens her job to a sales position. And this sales position has a hefty expense account.
During fiscal year 2012, Durham spent more than $73,000 on travel. That’s more than most Iowans make in a year.
Durham traveled around the state and across the country. She visited Washington, D.C., South Carolina and New York City, just to name a few. But she really racked up the frequent flyer miles on her international trips.
In June of 2011, Durham traveled to South Korea, China and Japan. The trip cost more than $12,000. Three months later, Durham returned to China. That trip cost more than $13,000. The plane ticket alone was more than $12,000. On both trips she stayed at hotels, that according to their websites, offer 5-star, luxury accommodations.
But the trip that really caught our eye, was one to Europe in November of 2011. According to travel records, the purpose of the trip was to meet with a number of companies at the Agritechnica Conference in Hannover, Germany. The conference was held November 15 through the November 19.
But Durham’s travel receipts indicate she never made it to the conference. Durham flew into Frankfurt on November 13. She stayed the night and then traveled to Munich the following day. After a night in Munich, Durham skipped from Florence, to Paris, to Bilbao. She was in Barcelona November 17 through November 19.
Durham’s staff told us on multiple occasions she was too busy to sit down for a formal interview. So, we caught up with her at a board meeting, where we questioned her about the conference in Hannover.
“The conference in Hannover? You’ll have to go through the receipts with Tina. I can barely remember what I did yesterday, let alone a year ago.”
She couldn’t remember if she attended the conference in Hannover, but she did recall her whirlwind tour of Italy, France and Spain.
“When we were over there, we went to uh, to Barcelona. We went over to call on a company called HIPRA, which made an investment at Iowa State. I think Paris was just in and out, we didn’t spend any time in Paris,” Durham told us.
According to Durham’s official itinerary, Durham spent two days in Florence, where she met with an architectural firm to discuss a potential partnership with Iowa State University. She also toured the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent, viewed Etruscan and Picenian artifacts and visited several museums and churches being restored by architectural students.
The European trip cost tax payers nearly $13,000. The biggest expense was the plane ticket. It was more than $9,500, perhaps because Durham flew first class during portions of the trip.
According to Durham, she never flies first class on the taxpayer’s dime.
“We don’t fly first class… you can look at the tickets. All of our tickets are business class only overseas. No first. I don’t know what ticket that is.”
We do. A copy of the ticket (viewable amongst Durham’s travel receipts) shows Durham flew first class on four legs of the trip. In a written statement, Durham’s spokesperson later told us the director was upgraded.
Durham asserts her job is sales, “And we have results to show for it.”
Iowa’s Economic Development Authority claims Durham’s approximate $75,000 in travel expenses resulted in $2.6 billion in capital investments in fiscal year 2012. That’s $35,000 invested in Iowa for every one dollar spent on travel.
As for the return on investment for the European trip, Durham’s spokesperson says, “Seven projects were identified, that collectively could result in the creation of 400 jobs and $60 million in capital investment.”
We’ve asked for, and are still waiting for, the equation used to calculate those numbers. And to date, the state can’t tell us if Durham actually closed the deal on any of her European sales calls.
Sidenote: We compared Durham’s travel expenses to those amassed by the last two Directors of Economic Development. The most Michael Tramontina spent on travel was about $30,000. Michael Blouin spent about $45,000.
We also looked at travel expenses Economic Directors in other states. Nebraska’s Economic Development Director, Catherine Lang says she spent nearly $9,000 on travel in fiscal year 2012. Lang also told us she is only allowed to fly economy, even when flying overseas. When she flew to China in March, her plane ticket cost a little more than $1,700. When asked how her boss might react to a $12,000 plane ticket, Lang responded, “It would come under serious scrutiny.”