Epstein: Ethics office audit of GSA fell far short


By Dan Epstein

When reports surfaced that the General Services Administration had spent almost $1 million on a Las Vegas conference, Congress and the media demanded accountability. This blatant misuse of taxpayer funds is egregious enough on its own, but Cause of Action’s recent investigation shows that the spending spree could have been prevented and should have been stopped by those with authority to monitor the agency.

The Office of Government Ethics, designed to oversee ethics programs for all executive branch agencies, evaluated GSA when it was planning the 2010 Western Regional Conference. OGE’s June 2010 investigation ended with a letter praising GSA for its ethics policies and practices and described the agency’s ethics program as “employing a number of what OGE [considered] model practices.” Now, knowing what we do about the GSA’s spending at the time, those statements, even the entire investigation, are laughable, if not absurd.

Not only did OGE overlook GSA’s shopping spree, but it failed to address known risk factors that, if corrected, could have prevented the scandal. Those factors included the fact that there was no designated agency ethics officer at GSA for nearly four years. Also, there was evidence that an alternate DAEO was spending “less than 25 percent of her time on ethics-related duties.”

If the officers charged with monitoring ethics compliance are nonexistent or spending their time on other endeavors, why did OGE not intervene? Did OGE inform GSA Inspector General Brian Miller immediately? And, as House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa pointed out, why didn’t Miller inform Congress about the misfeasance earlier?

Lastly, of what value is OGE in overseeing agency ethics? Inefficiency in oversight by OGE is a classic example of how government bureaucracy fails to solve problems.

In response to our investigation, OGE told The Washington Post: “Laws and regulations regarding appropriations, travel, personnel and government contracts are administered by a variety of agencies and are outside OGE’s purview. OGE is not an investigatory agency but routinely works closely with inspectors general.” If OGE works closely with IGs, why didn’t OGE notify Miller on Nov. 2, 2010, about the problems with GSA instead of stating things were aboveboard?

Moreover, the notion that OGE doesn’t have investigatory authority over federal ethics is misleading, as OGE is statutorily mandated to conduct ethics audits. Indeed, given President Obama’s ethics pledge — his first act of office — perhaps pleading ignorance is the only appropriate response for an Office of Government Ethics in the time of the allegedly most transparent government in history.

OGE’s failure to deny our findings, and instead dodge responsibility, was expected by Cause of Action, especially after another Obama-era entity, the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency, similarly pleaded no-contest to responsibility for inspecting how the government responds to waste. Given the chorus of do-nothing bureaucrats, Cause of Action was pressured to send a letter to the president asking him to have the Office of Management and Budget consider whether OGE’s sole authority over the standards of ethical conduct should be transferred to the IGs, who have the resources and independence to address waste, fraud and mismanagement.

IGs have the infrastructure and personal knowledge of their respective agencies to properly audit violations of the Standards of Official Conduct, but they lack authority to enforce these standards. By transferring this authority from OGE, which is wasting taxpayer dollars performing perfunctory investigations, and shifting responsibility and oversight to the IGs, needless bureaucracy is cut away for one system, one set of expectations and one set of enforcement.

Dan Epstein is executive director of Cause of Action, a nonpartisan government accountability organization in Washington.