01/22/2004 at 12:00 AM EST
Did taxpayers get charged for the rocks that they got? The United Services Organization -- which has been setting up entertainment for soldiers for 63 years -- is in hot water with government auditors over its use of money to stage a concert featuring Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock and Ja Rule for 1,500 troops during the war in Afghanistan.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the General Accounting Office found more than $430,000 in improper, questionable or unsupported USO tour expenses over a two-year period that were charged to the Pentagon.
While the study found no evidence of misconduct by USO employees or the stars themselves, it suggests that taxpayers routinely paid for first-class tickets, booze and limos for celebs -- a violation of Pentagon and federal regulations saying that such perks are supposed to be paid out of the USO's private donations, not money received from Congress.
For the J.Lo show, the Times reports, $349,910 in unaccounted for "production expenses" was paid by the Pentagon to MTV for the televised concert.
Since the investigation, the Pentagon's Armed Forces Entertainment division has reviewed all tours since 1998 and thus far uncovered another $73,000 in improper payments and has recovered more than $140,000 from the USO.
For its part, the USO released a statement saying many of the funding issues were resolved before auditors filed their report.
USO spokesman John Hanson tells the Times that celebrity shows have always been paid for by a mix of donations and taxpayer money, and that the entertainers are paid $50 a day (the same as an Army private first class).
"Most of them give it right back," Hanson said. "So we figure the least we can do is fly them first class."
The USO, however, denies that it pays for first-class tickets with taxpayer money -- saying a separate travel agency handles the flights and is responsible for billing the USO instead of the Pentagon.