Friday, April 13, 2012

Tip of the (Relocation Scandal) Iceberg

In the wake of its infamous $850,000 Vegas bash-cum-convention, the General Services Administration is in trouble again, this time for excessive re-location expenses for a former employee.

According to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (chaired by California Republican Darrell Issa), the embattled agency spent over $300,000 moving a former staffer from Denver to Hawaii. Another GSA employee provided details of the transfer, in an interview with an investigator from the agency's Inspector General division. A transcript of the conversation was provided to CNN:

The interview was largely about spending at the convention, but the unnamed GSA event planner volunteered that another part of his or her job was to relocate other employees.

In the one particular relocation from Denver to Hawaii costing the GSA $330,000, the event planner said the employee "stayed on for just the one year and then quit. Left the GSA," despite signing an agreement to stay on after relocation, "Wow that is wasting taxpayer money," the investigator said.

It "blew me away when I saw how much it costs to relocate somebody. It's crazy. It's astronomical. Hundreds of thousands of dollars," for one person, said the GSA event planner.

According to this transcript, relocation allowances generally included: a house hunting trip, temporary quarters for one to 30 days (which could be extended to 90 days), a vehicle shipped, $25 per diem, as well as groceries and laundry.

"I mean it's outrageous," said the GSA event planner.

Beyond that, the event planner said the government picked up the tab for closing costs on a home purchase, and if the person relocating can't sell their house, "we have a guarantee that we'll buy it" and "sell it off to somebody else."

"In the past two years how much do you think you've seen spent," asked the Inspector General investigator.

"Oh millions," replied the GSA event planner.

"How many employees are we talking about," the investigator later asked.

"I'd say, right now, probably about 15 files on my desk," said the GSA event planner.

While that revelation is enough to make your blood boil, it is hardly unusual. The "benefits" outlined by the event planner are standard for federal employees who accept a position in a new locale, and are relocated on the taxpayers' dime. For everyone who's loaded their possessions in a moving truck and set off across the country for a new job--and paid for the trip out of their own pocket--it must be reassuring to know that federal bureaucrats get a publicly-funded house-hunting trip, temporary lodging, per diem and all the other goodies that make for a smooth move. And for what it's worth, members of the U.S. military enjoy similar benefits during permanent change-of-station (PCS) moves.

So, it's not surprising that moving a single GSA worker from Denver to Honolulu cost $300,000, when you factor in those perks, plus the expense of buying their old home in Colorado, and paying closing costs on a new place in Hawaii. Of course, that prompts some rather obvious questions, namely, couldn't they find someone qualified in the local office, or hire someone with the right credentials off the street? Truth be told, it sounds like the Denver-to-Hawaii move was a sweetheart deal for someone. It would be nice to know where those other GSA employees are headed--and how much their moves will cost the taxpayer.

It's also sad to report that other government agencies have encountered serious problems managing their PCS accounts. In a story that barely registered a blip--even among the military press--five Air Force generals (now retired) were sanctioned for a $96 million overrun in the PCS account that occurred back in 2005. From an Air Force Times article published in December, 2010:

"...The latest sanctions, disclosed Dec. 2, went to five generals who overspent by $87 million the budget that pays for airmen and their families to move to new assignments back in 2005. The highest-ranking officers cited were Gen. Roger Brady, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, who leaves office Dec. 13, and Gen. Stephen Lorenz, who left as head of Air Education and Training Command on Nov. 17. While the changes of command were not a result of the admonishments, the two were kept from leaving their posts until the investigations were concluded, said an Air Force official familiar with the investigation.

Also singled out were Gregory W. Den Herder, then the executive director of Air Force Personnel Center and retired since 2006, and three individuals whose names the Air Force declined to release citing Privacy Act limits that restrict the disclosure of nonjudicial punish­ments involving less senior officials.

In a written statement, Air Force Secretary Mike Donley explained his decision to sanction the officers.“The Defense Department comptroller’s investigation determined that the individuals involved did not violate [rules] willfully or knowingly, however, the individuals failed to meet our standards, and all have been the subject of administrative actions,” Donley told Air Force Times."

Interestingly enough, General Lorenz was regarded as something of a managerial guru during his days in uniform, even writing a series of articles called "Lorenz on Leadership" that were widely disseminated within the service, and have continued into his retirement. To this day, neither General Lorenz (nor the Air Force) have explained how the PCS account was so badly mismanaged, and exactly what happened to that $96 million. Congressman Issa might ask his friends on the Armed Services Committee to look into that little accounting error.

As for General Lorenz, sounds like he has all the right qualifications to be the next GSA Administrator.


Vigilis said...

As of yet, facts to support my investigator's instinct are not available. Will the cover-up ever be pierced to verify one way or the other? If a new president is elected, this will become a very minor and forgotten scandal among the really buried stuff. Thanks to the blind justice of AG Holder, no scandal will get legs before the next election unless Michelle orchestrates one herself.

I suspect a relocation move of this magnitude would be difficult to justify unless the employee being relocated had earned a high-level GS salary. In other words, the employee is likely to have been a lawyer with deep administration connections.

George Smiley said...

I had similar thoughts; guessing the "re-located" employee was a GS-15 or a member of the Senior Executive Service.

TOF said...

I knew Steve Lorenz when he was a captain and a copilot. Nothing has changed, I see.

Karla said...

No kidding. I don't recall the government picking up the tab for things like house closing costs back they were PCSing my family.

Anonymous said...

The PCS agreement is for only one year of continued service. After one year the agency that transfers an employee has no recourse.

Mark Sindone said...

Wow some scandal huh. I know many people might have become numbed to such news as these things happen almost daily but I’m surprised how I still get quite shocked. I really wonder the types of money these government agencies have in their “storage”, ie, the undeclared amount they write off as expenses. I don’t believe in clean politicians; I’m not that naive, but I do believe there would be varying amounts depending on the country. Well, increasing, this “storage” of money has been revealed to the press and more so would come.