Waste, fraud and abuse in government commonly make the news, and 2013 was no exception. FedScoop took a look at some of the most attention-grabbing stories that ignited public outcry and landed in the crosshairs of the oversight committees.
EPA’s self-made spook
Almost everyone has at some point in his or her life daydreamed of being a secret agent. But one senior Environmental Protection Agency official took that fantasy to a whole new level. John Beale, a senior policy adviser in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, lied for years about having a one-day-a-week gig at the CIA. Although some of his colleagues were suspicious, Beale’s deception didn’t unravel until EPA’s inspector general looked into Beale’s expenses after he retired. Beale pleaded guilty to the scheme in September, admitting that for 2.5 years, he didn’t do any work at EPA while getting paid. “The details of this remarkable story are unfathomable — and yet they happened,” said Inspector General Arthur Elkins. On Dec. 18, Beale was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for stealing nearly $900,000 in taxpayer funds. He also had to forfeit more than $500,000.
Rep. Darrell Issa called it a “monumental” mistake, and early users of a dysfunctional healthcare.gov might agree. The Oct. 1 rollout of the website was fraught with challenges and it didn’t take long until it became a congressional matter. Top technologists were called to testify on who was responsible for the botched rollout, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ mea culpa fell on deaf ears as Republican legislators fired away questions at her. After tech giants — Google, Oracle and Red Hat, among others — came to the rescue to repair the website, healthcare.gov saw a surge in health care coverage enrollments. However, for some that victory came a little too late: two senior Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials involved with the launch had already resigned.
Overtime abuse at DHS
It was known as the “candy bowl” — a metaphoric description of an overtime account employees at the Department of Homeland Security would dip into on a regular basis. According to testimony from seven whistleblowers, some DHS employees would add 2 hours to their timecards every day without doing any extra work. That unlawful practice cost the government up to $9 million annually at six DHS offices. Although the total amount of annual overtime abuse throughout DHS is unknown, the Office of Special Counsel dubbed it a “pervasive” problem. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner called the misuse “a gross waste of scarce government funds.” The good news: OSC said it hasn’t received reports of similar abuse from any other offices.
Although it has long struggled with mismanagement and other challenges, 2013 was a particularly dismal year for VA. In October, FedScoop reported on congressional questioning of VA’s IT security posture relating to as many as nine state-sponsored cyber-attacks in 2010 and the inability of senior IT leaders to answer basic questions about the incidents. Then, a month later, FedScoop reported on how sources described the leadership environment throughout the Office of Information Technology and the Office of Inspector General as management by “intimidation and cronyism.” VA also had to answer to lawmakers why it spent $87 million on conferences in 2011– and then gave $43,000 in bonuses to those who planned the events.
NSA’s spying programs
Most Americans had their suspicions about Big Brother, but the true scope of the clandestine surveillance was revealed when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents outlining a massive spying apparatus. While Snowden found refuge in Russia, the public, media and lawmakers continued to challenge the constitutionality of collecting and storing citizens’ telephone meta data and information from online services. President Barack Obama vowed to reform the NSA programs with four initiatives and also called for the establishment of a review group to examine NSA’s surveillance practices. Despite widespread attention in Congress and numerous hearings, no major policy or legislative changes have emerged.
In 2013 alone, billions of dollars were spent on projects many would deem unnecessary, if not just plain frivolous. For example, Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook” outlined how the Army spent $297 million on a blimp that was too heavy to fly. The aircraft was sold back to the contractor — for a mere $301,000. The Air Force made a similarly wasteful spending decision when it mothballed brand-new planes worth $432 million. But both examples are pocket change when compared to the military’s decision to destroy equipment rather than sell it or ship it back from overseas. That decision cost taxpayers more than $7 billion. And that pesky 16-day shutdown? The White House estimated it cost $2 billion to provide back pay to federal employees “for services that could not be performed” during the shutdown. However, total compensation costs could be as high as $2.5 billion.