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

Watchdog group says Office of Government Ethics missed clear warning signs of risks of abuse and waste in GSA, suggesting that some changes may be needed in the government's structure for ethics oversight.

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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