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KESSLER’S TRAVEL BOOKS RIFE WITH OVERCHARGES

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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 A. Kessler submitted expense accounts riddled with nickel-and-dime overcharges in his favor, a review of records shows.

Confronted with travel vouchers that were signed as truthful under penalty of federal law, Kessler insisted Friday the errors were unintentional and 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 that has sued the FDA seeking several of Kessler's records. On Friday, the FDA itself delivered the documents to the AP in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

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.

- On several occasions his travel vouchers were auto penned or signed certifying their accuracy after they had already been approved. In two instances in 1994, his signature was backdated to appear as though he signed it prior to approval. FDA officials said they don't know who did the backdating.

Travel vouchers explicitly warn that intentional falsification requires a worker to forfeit the claim and can be punished by up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

Kessler has served Presidents Bush and Clinton and has won wide acclaim as pointman 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.

Dozens of the cab rides Kessler claimed without receipts far exceeded the actual fares - in some instances by two or three times - and required receipts under agency rules at the time because they exceeded $25.

Kessler had receipts for only 10 percent of the 241 cab rides he claimed.