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Let's compare travel budgets 

I spent last week touring remote and backwoods areas in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, lonely and serene places that generally see less action to use the quaint old New England phrase "than Ted Haggard's wife."

But it was peak foliage week, and that made it different. The oaks and maples and delicate birch sent shimmering waves of color dancing across the forests. We went through the land known as New England or, in French, "Nova Scotia." The tab was about $1,600, an amount my wife Susie called "reasonable." (Footnote: Having just returned to the wild-spending Independent, I called it "about 16 columns.")

We were accompanied by my mother and father, who live in that area. My father spent the week sneaking into people's houses along the way, unscrewing light bulbs and turning down their heat. (Al Gore may have just won the Nobel Peace Prize for energy conservation, but I grew up with the founder of the whole movement.)

The cost included nice hotels, one in the town of Plymouth, N.H., where on Oct. 10 I am not kidding presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama spent the evening just two doors down from my parents' room. (My father nearly had the hallway light bulb in front of Obama's room unscrewed before the Secret Service wrestled him off the chair and onto the floor.)

All of which brings us, mercifully, to what writers like to call the point: If four of us could spend a week traveling and staying in nice hotels and eating fine meals for $1,600, how in the name of Leona Helmsley could executives at our Colorado Springs Utilities have, in 20 months, run up $5.2 million ... yes, $5.2 million ... in travel expenses?

To find out, I went to the plain, frugally decorated downtown offices of Utilities in the cheap-rent Plaza of the Rockies, entering the modest building in the usual way: crossing the ruby-encrusted drawbridge over the Moat of a Thousand Crocodiles.

Unfortunately, top Utilities executives were in Paris for the two-month Internationale Symposium de Streete Lights. Then I found a copy of an expense report and itinerary while rummaging around on the $250,000 handmade Italian mahogany desk of the Utilities' CEO, Jerry "Saving Money Is Not My" Forte.

Here are some highlights that might help us understand how the Utilities brain trust, with the blessing of our elite City Council, could pile up $5.2 million in travel expenses in 20 months:

Aug. 18, 9 a.m.: Forte and chief customer service officer Kelly Means meet at airport, talk about elderly people in Colorado Springs freezing to death this winter because they can't pay their utilities bills. After laughter subsides, they depart aboard Bombardier XRS private jet for Utilities Symposium in Dubai. (Forte brings both sets of his $6,000 golf clubs, in case one gets lost.)

9:05 a.m.: Forte settles in for flight, makes "natural gas" joke followed by loud noise on expensive panda-skin seat. Means moves to another row on almost-empty $48 million jet.

Aug. 19, 6 a.m.: Exhausted Forte steps off jet in Dubai, checks into $13,600-a-night Royal Suite in Burj Al Arab Hotel. Calls room service for grapes, palm leaves and 100 royal fanners. Means stays across the street at no-frills, $2,000-a-night Ramadan Inn.

Aug. 20, 8 a.m.: Forte and Means meet for breakfast, gulp down $500 Iranian mushroom omelets and $250 glasses of orange juice, hand-squeezed by 40 virgins. The two financial wizards then spend 15 minutes trying to figure out 20 percent tip on $1,500 breakfast.

Aug. 21, 10 a.m.: Remainder of 65-person Utilities contingent arrives aboard chartered $18 million Sikorsky helicopters. After slurping cups of $180-a-pound Panamanian Hacienda La Esmeralda coffee, everyone slips into Grand Ballroom.

Noon: Start of big seminar and lecture with major implications for Colorado Springs, justifying $1.6 million trip.

4 p.m.: Lecture ends. Utilities PR guy Steve Berry asks Forte whether "camels chewing through electric wires" is really a Colorado Springs problem.

4:10 p.m.: Berry is sent home on commercial flight. Coach. Appears to have impression of size 10 Testoni Norvegese $1,500 Italian loafer on seat of pants.

Listen to Rich Tosches at 8 a.m. Thursdays on the "Darren and Coba Show" on MY99.9.

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