Top aides to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. flew to a luxury hotel overlooking the Grand Canyon this week to help him draft plans for cutting the department's budget.
Agency spokesman Steven Goldstein on Friday defended the trip but acknowledged that "staying at a three-star hotel" looks bad. Air fare and hotel accommodations for Lujan and the seven aides will probably cost taxpayers about $4,000, he said.
The trip came under fire from a private group, which scoffed at the Interior Department's explanation that Lujan and his aides needed to get away from the agency's noisy Washington headquarters to make tough budget-cutting choices.
"That's ludicrous. Major decisions are made in Washington all the time. Certainly, people can go into a room and say 'no interruptions,' " said Eleanor J. Lewis, director of the Government Procurement Project, a Ralph Nader group.
"Is this going to be a new government expense we're going to have to tolerate? Fly officials out of Washington so they can get some quiet?" she asked.
But Goldstein said that the trip was "appropriate for a Cabinet member and his staff who have to determine a $7-billion budget." The White House Office of Management and Budget has ordered all government agencies to trim spending by 5% before they submit their 1993 budgets, he said.
Lujan is in the middle of a three-week trip to Western states to inspect parks, dams and other facilities overseen by the Interior Department, Goldstein said. After leaving the Grand Canyon, he is scheduled to travel to Wyoming and Montana to visit Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Goldstein said that it made more sense to fly the seven aides from Washington to the Grand Canyon rather than have Lujan return to Washington for round-the-clock budget briefings. Two of the seven aides are accompanying Lujan on to Montana and Wyoming, the spokesman said.
"Mr. Lujan is traveling; he has other commitments that he has to keep, and our budget has to be (finished) in two weeks," Goldstein said.
He acknowledged, however, that "perception-wise" the trip to a resort hotel to find ways to save money "makes a great headline."
"I can understand the irony of staying at a hotel in a park where you're determining where budget cuts should be," Goldstein said.