This week’s hearings on the General Services Administration (GSA) spending scandal may be ruffling some feathers, but regardless of how the event is painted by either side, the truth is that we have yet another case of severe tax-dollar waste within an administration, who, time after time, has lauded transparency and accountability. This particular GSA atrocity was concealed for over a year. Can we help but wonder about similar instances of excess that fly under the OIG radar at other agencies?
This is why Cause of Action wrote letters to 32 federal agency offices demanding information on their spending on nonessential items that offer no value to taxpayers. Among last week’s disclosures, it was revealed that GSA spent $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes for employees at the controversial Las Vegas conference. Excessive spending on trinkets like these is not only frivolous but deceptive, prompting Cause of Action to send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to each of 32 agencies and their Offices of Inspector General calling for documentation of all spending on commemorative awards such as coins and keychains.
Jeff Neely, the Regional Commissioner of Region 9 of the GSA, refused to testify before Monday’s House Oversight Committee hearing. In response to several questions from Chairman Darrell Issa, Neely claimed, “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my 5th amendment constitutional privilege.” Inspector General Brian D. Miller claimed at the April 16, 2012 hearing that the excess spending at Region 9 was widespread. IG Miller claimed there are ongoing investigations “including all sorts of improprieties including bribes and possibly kickbacks.” IG Miller claimed GSA employees were afraid of retaliation; according to Miller, Jeff Neely “squashed” agency whistleblowers “like a bug” yet received a performance bonus for his work.
If our tax dollars are being used to purchase excessive rewards for government employees while taxpayers themselves are struggling with mortgage payments, we want to uncover those facts.
As taxpayers, our rightful expectation is that the government is a responsible steward of our well-earned dollars and that our taxes are put toward projects that hold value for American citizens. If there are hidden line items within federal agency budgets that allocate dollars toward objects of no worth to taxpayers, Cause of Action intends to find out through FOIA, especially if this culture of noncompliance suppresses the rights of federal employees to expose fraud.
The Obama administration itself claims that FOIA is “an integral part of creating an open and transparent government,” and Cause of Action is no stranger to FOIA’s intricacies. Last fall, Cause of Action filed a FOIA request into the issue of administrative earmarks. When the Office of Management and Budget failed to present the requested information, Cause of Action took the White House to court.
The GSA case shows that tax-dollar waste comes with serious consequences. Thus far, eight GSA employees have faced serious discipline, been fired, or chosen to resign. Flippant spending is not to be taken lightly.
Acting GSA chief Dan Tangherlini has said that the GSA is now conducting an evaluation of its conferences, reviewing how dollars are used, and pinpointing methods for using resources more efficiently. But shouldn’t this be common practice for a federal agency? If GSA spent over $800,000 with practically no accountability, who’s to say that such extravagance isn’t pervasive below the surface of other federal entities?
This week, Cause of Action sent both a FOIA request for all records concerning the Office of Government Ethics’ (OGE) investigations into excessive spending on commemorative items by federal agencies as well as an investigation by the OGE into such excessive spending.
It should not take a scandal to motivate a department to streamline its spending practices, and it is disappointing that this administration needs constant reminding of its obligation to be transparent with taxpayers.
Our country is sitting under a government that can’t balance a budget and within an economy that’s facing a recession. If there was ever a time to reveal wasteful government spending and demand that this administration live up to its claims to transparency, it is now.
Dan Epstein is Executive Director of Cause of Action, a non-partisan organization that uses public advocacy and legal reform tools to ensure greater transparency in government, protect taxpayer interests and promote economic freedom.
Prior to joining Cause of Action, Epstein served at the U.S. House of Representatives for several years as a Counsel for Oversight and Investigations at the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He was the lead counsel on tax, labor, nonprofit and federal grant spending investigations and oversight and his prominent investigations concerned the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the Service Employees International Union, the National Labor Relations Board, and the National Mediation Board.
Before his Hill experience, Epstein worked on legal reform issues in the private sector. He graduated with honors from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he was Editor-in-Chief of The Kenyon Observer, a Felix Morley National Journalism Finalist, and a Walter Judd Scholar at the Institute on Political Journalism, Georgetown University. Epstein received his law degree from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and is a member of the Maryland State Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association. He is an Eagle Scout and President’s Volunteer Service Award winner.