Federal Times: Dan Epstein: Ethics office audit of GSA fell far short

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.

OGE Response Proves Need For Restructuring Of Ethics Oversight


On August 6th, Cause of Action released a memorandum on our recent investigation into the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and their failure to properly review the ethics program of the General Services Administration (GSA).  Our investigation found that the OGE approved the ethics program of the GSA just three days after the now infamous Vegas conference that cost taxpayers $822,751.  We also noted that there were risk factors brought to the attention of OGE officers about GSA prior to this 2010 ethics report.

The OGE response to our findings was a claim that they are somehow not responsible for overseeing the GSA misconduct.  Specifically, an OGE representative claimed, “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”.

The OGE didn’t contest the validity of our fact-finding or analysis, but merely claimed they are somehow not responsible for detecting these particular violations. The fact that OGE doesn’t dispute our conclusions and seems to shift responsibility to the Inspector General provides support for our request that President Obama and the Office of Budget Management consider transferring ethics oversight duties to the agency inspectors general.

As the chart below notes, OGE is responsible for a wide variety of ethics-related matters. Clearly an audit of the GSA Ethics program should have taken into account the warnings that the OGE previously received.  Furthermore, if the OGE is unable to truly discover these violations and are instead dependent on the Inspectors General, then would it not make sense to shift ethics oversight duties to the same Inspectors General that have the necessary investigative abilities? This is precisely what we asked in our letter to President Obama last Thursday.

Government agencies must be held accountable for their waste, fraud and mismanagement. It makes no sense to have a mechanism in place that allows for an agency to be given a clean bill of health for its ethics program just days after a huge ethics violation.  Taxpayers deserve a more efficient system that will prevent this type of disaster in the future.



Washington Post: GSA’s ethics program approved just days after scandal-plagued conference

Read the full story here. Washington Post

The letter and other documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Cause of Action, a nonpartisan government oversight group.“Specifically, we found that the [ethics] program was meeting the objectives for each of the required elements: financial disclosure, training, and advice and counseling. In addition, GSA’s ethics program has been enhanced by employing a number of what OGE considers to be model practices,” according to the OGE report.In January 2010, Leigh Snyder, an ethics expert on Zemple’s staff, raised concerns over the GSA’s history of controlling conflicts of interest, according to the FOIA documents.Snyder cited a high agency official’s involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and with former administrator Lurita Doan, who resigned in 2008 amid questionable contracting practices.“GSA’s mission and history of high-profile ethics violations make it susceptible to heightened public scrutiny,” Snyder wrote in the memo. “As such, GSA’s ethics program should be regularly reviewed to ensure it runs effectively.”This spring, Miller released a scathing report on waste and abuse in relation to the Las Vegas conference, which cost more than $800,000. The Justice Department also is investigating.“It is peculiar that Patricia Zemple ignored her ethics officer’s memorandum,” said Daniel Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action…”

Cause of Action Exposes OGE’s Failure to Act in GSA Spending Scandal

  Cause of Action Exposes OGE’s Failure to Act in GSA Spending Scandal

Watchdog Organization Calls on White House to Evaluate Careless Investigation and Lack of Oversight

WASHINGTON – Cause of Action released an investigative memorandum today detailing how the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) failed to detect ethics abuses by the General Services Administration (GSA), now infamous for the 2010 Western Regional Conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers $822,751.


The memorandum, The Office of Government Ethics Failed to Prevent Scandal at the General Services Administration, discloses years of mismanagement at OGE and waste at GSA that went unchecked until now.


“The enormous waste of taxpayer dollars by GSA over the last several years could have been prevented had GSA IG David Miller had the authority to investigate ethics abuses instead of the OGE maintaining that authority and simply ignoring its duties,” said Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action (CoA). “Warning signs presented to OGE officials were ignored, and an OGE investigation bafflingly found GSA to be in compliance with ethics rules in 2010 during the time GSA employees were engaged in conflicts of interest and wasteful spending that violate both the letter and spirit of the Standards of Official Conduct.”


In addition to highlighting the failures of the OGE investigation, the memorandum also highlights several key gaps in the administration of the ethics program at the GSA.


“Quite obviously the GSA was running amuck with taxpayer dollars, and yet no one at the GSA seemed concerned. Perhaps this is because the person who should have been sounding the alarm—the Designated Agency Ethics Officer—didn’t exist; in fact, that position within the GSA sat vacant for at least four years,” said Epstein.


The memorandum is based upon the findings from CoA’s April 19, 2012, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to OGE asking for “all documents referring or relating to any Office of Government Ethics investigation into or determination made regarding the GSA’s compliance with the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch between January 1, 2009 and the present.”


Some of the key findings include:

  • In November 2010, one month after the Western Regional Conference, OGE reported to GSA Inspector General Brian Miller, that “GSA’s ethics program appears to be effectively administered and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies”.  In fact, OGE considered GSA to have “model practices” in place.


  • OGE had both specific and prior knowledge that significant ethics risks existed at the GSA. GSA failed to fill a Designated Agency Ethics Officer (DAEO) position from 2007 to at least 2010. According to The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch, all agencies are required to have a DAEO to supply ethics advice to employees. GSA has eleven regional offices with no full-time ethics officials.


  • According to documents produced by OGE, GSA’s ethics program is principally administered by eleven regional ethics offices. Yet OGE reviewed only five of GSA’s eleven regional offices for compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies.


  • OGE lacks the oversight and accountability of an Inspector General. Any mismanagement or fraud within the Office of Government Ethics is subject to review only by OGE itself. OGE missed allegations of waste, fraud and mismanagement by GSA that occurred before and during OGE’s investigation of GSA. GSA’s ethics abuses were investigated and later documented by its own IG, not the OGE.


“In response to our findings we are sending a letter to the White House calling for the President to consider the cost to taxpayers involved in keeping the OGE as opposed to strengthening the roles of sitting Inspectors General,” continued Epstein.

The letter, addressed to President Obama, reads in part, “Given your commitment to ethics and transparency in government, we recommend that you have the Office of Management and Budget consider whether the OGE should be abolished and its authority transferred to the Inspectors General, who, as is the case with GSA IG Brian Miller, have the authority to address issues of waste, fraud, and mismanagement in the Federal Government.”


The full memorandum and letter to White House can be viewed here.