First lady Michelle Obama's family trip to South Africa and Botswana in June cost taxpayers well over $424,000, according to new accounting based on Air Force manifests obtained by Judicial Watch, a taxpayer watchdog group.
The use of Air Force aircraft alone for the June 21-27 trip cost $424,142, said the group, and that doesn't include the food, lodging, and ground transportation for the 21 family and staff members.
Judicial Watch said it based the jet costs on the Pentagon's hourly rates for the C-32A aircraft used for the trip. The documents don't give exact cost calculations, which is typical for presidential and first family trips.
The White House this afternoon disputed the costs calculated by Judicial Watch. "The number stated is misconstrued and out of context. The hourly rate is not the marginal cost of operation the plane - it is an accounting figure that prices in a number of fixed costs from maintaining the Air Force fleet for this kind of plane over a year," said an official. "For example, it includes estimated replacement parts, depreciation, repairs, and costs that would have been incurred regardless of this flight. Also, for security reasons Mrs. Obama must fly on military aircraft." Also, during her good-will mission, the first lady attended five to seven official events daily.
Obama is like many first ladies, spending summers traveling on good-will missions, sometimes with family and friends. On the June trip, during which she was accompanied by her daughters and mother, the first lady urged young people to engage with their governments and she pushed her education and wellness agenda. They also took a safari in South Africa, well known for its beautiful Lion King-like settings.
The costs of the trips have often won media scorn, as did her trip to Spain the previous summer.
But presidential experts say that the value of first lady visits is priceless, especially in cases like Obama's to Africa where the first family has special ties and where the president has been pursuing a personal agenda, especially in Kenya, the home of his father.
Charges for the Aircraft and Crew Alone Amount to $424,142
Washington, DC -- October 4, 2011
Judicial Watch, the organization that investigates and fights government corruption, announced today that it has obtained mission expense records and passenger manifests from the United States Air Force related to the June 21-27, 2011, trip taken by First Lady Michelle Obama, her family and her staff to South Africa and Botswana. Judicial Watch obtained the documents pursuant to an August 19, 2011, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Air Force (No. 11-1496)). Judicial Watch is investigating the purpose and itinerary of the trip as well as a breakdown of the costs to taxpayers.
On June 28, 2011, Judicial Watch filed a FOIA request seeking the mission taskings, transportation records, and passenger manifests for Michelle Obama's Africa trip. Documents were only provided after Judicial Watch filed suit:
• According to U.S. Department of Defense's published hourly rates for the C-32A aircraft used for the trip, Judicial Watch calculated the total cost to American taxpayers was $424,142 for use of the aircraft (34.8 flight hours x $12,188 per hour). (The C-32 is a specially configured military version of the Boeing 757.) Other expenses - meals (off the plane), transportation, security, various services, etc. - have yet to be disclosed.
• The passenger manifests confirm the presence of Obama's daughter's, Malia and Sasha on the trip. The two girls are listed as "Senior Staff." The manifests also list Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, and niece and nephew, Leslie and Avery Robinson, as well Mrs. Obama's makeup and hairstylist (Carl Ray and Johnny Wright).
• The expense records also show $928.44 was spent for "bulk food" purchases on flight. Overall, during the trip, 192 meals were served for the 21 passengers on board.
The professed purpose of Michelle Obama's trip to South Africa and Botswana was to encourage young people living in the two growing democracies to become involved in national affairs; and during her scheduled stops in Pretoria and Cape Town, South Africa and in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, the First Lady used the opportunity to speak on education, health and wellness issues.
The trip also included such tourist events as visits to historical landmarks and museums, plus a nonworking chance to send time with Nelson Mandela, a meeting that Mrs. Obama described as "surreal." The trip ended with a private family safari at a South African game reserve before the group returned to Washington on June 27.
"This trip was as much an opportunity for the Obama family to go on a safari as it was a trip to conduct government business," said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. "This junket wasted tax dollars and the resources of our overextended military. No wonder we had to sue to pry loose this information."
Previously, Judicial Watch uncovered that the First Couple's 2009 "date night" trip to New York for dinner and a Broadway show cost taxpayers over $11,000 in Secret Service costs alone.
- See photos of Michelle Obama.
- See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
- See photos of the Obamas abroad.
Updated 10/4/11: This post has been updated to include a White House response Corrected on 10/5/11: An earlier version of this article’s headline misstated the cost of a Michelle Obama's trip to Africa. The trip cost at least $424,142.