GSA's ethical lapses may indicate a systemic oversight problem, group says

The Office of Government Ethics said Aug. 6 that it did its job in assessing the General Services Administration’s ethics programs in 2010, the year in which GSA hosted a conference in Las Vegas that has recently become a scandal for the agency.

In 2010, OGE reported that GSA’s ethics programs appeared to be effectively administered and followed laws and regulations. GSA was training its employees, and GSA had a number of model practices in place, according to OGE’s Ethics Program Review from October 2010.

However, an independent watchdog group known as Cause of Action said OGE missed the warning signs of waste and abuses at GSA while giving the agency a clean bill of ethical health.

Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, said OGE officials ignored risks. He said GSA had not designated an agency ethics officer from 2007 to at least 2010. GSA also managed its ethics program regionally rather than centrally, a potential weakness that OGE apparently did not consider significant, according to the group.

Epstein suggested that some changes to the oversight structure might be in order. "The enormous waste of taxpayer dollars by GSA over the last several years could have been prevented had GSA IG [Brian] Miller had the authority to investigate ethics abuses instead of the OGE maintaining that authority and simply ignoring its duties,” he said in a statement.

In an Aug. 2 letter, Cause of Action urged President Barack Obama to have Office of Management and Budget officials consider whether the OGE’s sole authority over the standards of ethical conduct should be transferred to the IGs. Epstein wrote that agencies’ IGs have appropriate resources and independence to deal with waste, fraud and mismanagement.

In addition, the OGE has no IG of its own, and the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency does not have the authority to perform audits. OGE, therefore, is essentially operating unchecked, Epstein said.

An OGE spokesman said the office’s role is not to investigate things such as conference spending and conflicts of interest. Agencies are guided by laws and regulations regarding appropriations, travel, personnel, and government contracting. Those areas are outside of OGE’s purview.

“OGE is not an investigatory agency, but routinely works closely with inspectors general,” an office spokesman said.

OGE provides oversight and accountability of Executive Branch policies designed to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest. It also promotes high ethical standards for Executive Branch employees. One of its duties is ensuring that agencies’ ethics programs comply with laws and regulations.

“The COA memorandum reflects a lack of understanding of OGE’s authorities and mission,” the spokesman said.

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Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Wed, Aug 8, 2012

This article is misleading in several respects. Notably, the IGs already have authority to investigate code-of-coduct violations (not sole authority of OGE, pursue related administrative and criminal prosecutions, and to exercise oversight of ethics programs within their agencies. In fact, several IG's have reviewed internal practices and procedures of their ethics programs. Most significant: the central GSA criticisms involve issues of procurement and whistleblowing outside OGE's responsibilities and clearly within the OIG's.

Wed, Aug 8, 2012 Buffalo NY

This appears to be a prime example of jurisdictional squabbling. GSA's OIG should be the lead entity in investigating abuses at GSA - not OGE. Ethics reform within an agency should be the result of OIG investigations of abuse - not the other way around. There definitely appears to be some failure on OGE's part to share information during the course of their review to the OIG for investigative follow-up. This appears to be another example of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Wed, Aug 8, 2012 Raul Espinosa

Small businesses agree with Cause in Action. Except, in our case, we are demanding more! For years, the GSA bureaucracy discriminated against our participation in contracting. What goes around comes around! The GSA FSS program, is an archaic procurement vehicle too complex and convoluted to encourage small business participation. Just look at the numbers!! The FSS does NOT provide any savings to the government in contracting for commodities. Attempts to have technology extend its existence is like trying to fix a 1920 Model T to go across the country when you also had access to a 2012 brand-new vehicle with all its bells and whistles. In summary, the FSS is an infective bureaucracy that only supports its own existence. I say Bag it! Raul Espinosa Founder - Fairness in Procurement Alliance (FPA) Managing Partner - Umbrella Initiative

Wed, Aug 8, 2012 Fed Up Fed

In the late 90's/early 00's I was at GSA. I attended the mandatory ethics training. I tried to abide by the spirit and intent of those standards. I left not long after I was pressured to approve a contract that specified a contract employee who had been dismissed from another contractor for falsifying time cards. I was informed that I needed to learn that "business was business" and sign the damn referral to the contracting officer. I refused and found another job (outside of GSA) within the month. Some years later, that department was absorbed into another one after some shenannigans with the trust fund. --It's systemic and from the top down. --

Wed, Aug 8, 2012

The headline of this is very misleading. The headlind implies that there are ethical issues throughout government, not that there is a system weakness that may lead to ethical problems. Big difference; poor writing.

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