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Rome trip renews questions on Nutter's frequent travels

Mayor Nutter's recent trip to Rome, where he posed with tourists, spoke with the pope, and slept in a five-star hotel, has renewed questions at home about his frequent travels.

Mayor Nutter takes a selfie with Luca Neiderer and his wife, Margaret, of Hanover, Pa., in Rome.
Mayor Nutter takes a selfie with Luca Neiderer and his wife, Margaret, of Hanover, Pa., in Rome.Read moreDave Maialetti / Inquirer staff

CORRECTION: A story Monday about Mayor Nutter's travels should have noted that he paid his own way to Democratic conventions in 2008 and 2012 even as the city paid for the rest of his entourage. Also, his office said it erred in totaling the city's costs for the 2008 event at $10,014, saying the correct figure was $7,296 — making it the second costliest of the trips described in the article and a chart.

Mayor Nutter's recent trip to Rome, where he posed with tourists, spoke with the pope, and slept in a five-star hotel, has renewed questions at home about his frequent travels.

Though a church-connected nonprofit picked up the Rome tab, City Council members raised the issue during last week's budget hearings, citing the six international excursions Nutter has taken since 2011.

"He should go on trade missions," Councilman David Oh said after the hearing. "What is the return on investment?"

The administration couldn't answer with a precise number. Instead, it is preparing a report outlining the fruits of the mayor's trade mission to London and Israel in the fall. The other trips abroad were not trade missions, spokesman Mark McDonald said.

But if Nutter's passport use garners the most attention, it's his domestic trips to conferences or speaking engagements that rack up the city's credit card bills. Like the five-day Rome trip last month, international trips are usually paid for by foundations or nonprofits.

From 2008 through 2013, Nutter's office spent $334,634 on travel, city records show. (The totals include such close-to-home "travel" costs as SEPTA fares and overnight hotel stays in Center City for a handful of officials during this winter's snow emergencies.) That is a few thousand more than was spent in his predecessor's entire eight-year tenure. Travel costs for Mayor John F. Street's office from 2000 through 2007 totaled $365,506.

Though the travel costs for Nutter, his aides, and his security detail aren't shocking, City Controller Alan Butkovitz said, he echoes Oh's question.

"That has to be measured with what was tangibly achieved for Philadelphia," said Butkovitz, who has expressed interest in running for mayor in 2015. "Is it worth what it's costing in time and money?"

Nutter's spokesman counters that the trips the mayor and his aides take are beneficial for the city because, at the very least, they put Philadelphia on a national stage.

"This is all about attracting resources, investments, and companies to the city," McDonald said.

Since July 2012, Nutter and his staff have charged nearly $100,000 to city credit cards for travel, lodging, and dining, according to city records.

The mayor often takes the train to Washington - for a news conference related to Philadelphia, or to testify on a proposed assault weapons ban in Congress - and returns that day, taking only his communications director, Desiree Peterkin-Bell.

Sometimes Nutter is accompanied by his chief of staff, Everett Gillison, and other aides at multiday conferences.

In February, Nutter, Gillison, and three other city employees went to New Orleans for a two-day Cities United conference that focused on how to reduce violence among young African American men and boys. Nutter's group stayed five days.

It was just before Mardi Gras. Deputy City Representative Erica Atwood posted a photo on her Facebook page of her with New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu and Gillison decked in beads and partying at the Mardi Gras Zulu Formal Ball. Gillison posted late that evening on his personal Facebook page:

"And now, just to top it off, Patti LaBelle takes the stage - #NOLA parties hard!"

The post was deleted from his page a few weeks later.

In an interview, Gillison defended the trip, saying that about 20 mayors attended the conference and that such meetings give mayors a chance to share insights. "Exchange of ideas is always a benefit," Gillison said. He said he did a presentation on data analysis as a crime-fighting tool.

Last month, the city charged $7,649 on its Bank of America card to cover airfare to New Orleans, train rides to Washington, and hotel rooms in the nation's capital. The mayor and his wife, Lisa, stayed at the W Hotel in Washington for two nights, totaling $1,120. They were there for a Community College National Legislative Summit, where Nutter was a speaker.

The meals charged to the city during official travel are usually modest - club sandwiches, burgers. Gillison lunched on a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and Coke at a Johnny Rockets while in Washington for a speaking engagement at the Department of Labor in July 2012. Later, he headed to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse for a $79.03 dinner.

Much of Nutter's travel in 2012-13 was related to his post as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a role that took him to Orlando, New York, and Las Vegas, all at his city's expense. Since he stepped down from that post in June, his travel costs have decreased.

When Philadelphia taxpayers pay for the mayor, they are often also paying for his security detail and at least one aide. That was the case when Nutter went to President Obama's second inauguration and to two Democratic National Conventions, in 2008 (Denver) and 2012 (Charlotte.)

Hotel rooms for Obama's inauguration last year cost $2,078 each - there were four reserved for Nutter's entourage.

Some trips are last-minute - such as in August 2009, when the mayor cut short a Caribbean vacation to lobby in Harrisburg for a bill to ease Philadelphia's pension crisis and increase the sales tax. The bill passed. (The city's $1,141 in costs were for the flight to Harrisburg, not the vacation.)

Or the $1,560 trip Nutter and his security detail took to Chicago in November 2011: that was for the funeral of former Mayor Richard M. Daley's wife, Maggie, who died after a long battle with breast cancer.

As for Butkovitz's contention that Nutter should be "taking care of the fires at home" instead of jetting around the country and globe?

"He is in close contact with the staff . . . his voice is crystal clear," McDonald said. "This administration can do more than one thing at a time."

Indeed, the city spent $1,646 last year on a Microsoft tablet and accessories for the mayor - so he can stay in touch from near and far, whether he's on Capitol Hill or in a Roman hotel.