For feds, it's 'WTH?' time

Wednesday - 4/18/2012, 2:00am EDT

When the "unsinkable" Titanic began to sink, the operator of the brand-new Marconi wireless-radio system sent out the then-standard CQD distress call. (The plea for help was later replaced by SOS.) Had it been around then, terrified passengers and crew would also likely have blasted out the modern WTH code. Just in case. (WTH of course meaning "What the heck?" — or the saltier equivalent.)

It's a good question.

Today, 100 years later, Uncle Sam appears to be piloting the new Titanic. Thousands of federal-government workers/taxpayers are sending out the WTH distress call. As taxpayers, they are fed up with the latest scandals. As feds, they are angry at the people who caused the scandals, and fearful as to what it might mean for their jobs, their careers and their agencies. Many are concerned — perhaps with good reason — that ongoing investigations by Congress, the Justice Department and the media will turn into the 21st-century version of the Salem Witch Trials.

As radio, television and print media reported on the GSA and Secret Service situations yesterday, The Washington Post carried a Page One story about Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's commuting costs. According to the Associated Press, his weekend DC-to-California trips have cost more than $800,000. That's about the same amount as GSA's now infamous Las Vegas team-builder conference.

The AP quoted Panetta as saying he regretted the costs, especially since the Pentagon is pushing major spending cuts. The requirement that he travel on military aircraft with state-of-the-art communications equipment was issued during the Bush administration. Panetta has reimbursed the government about $17,000, the estimated cost of those trips on commercial airlines.

If you see everything through a political prism, try this: If you are a die-hard Democrat and think it is reasonable and okay, or if you are a die-hard Republican and think an $800,000 airline tab is outrageous, substitute the name Donald Rumsfeld for Panetta.

Bottom line: Life in government is a lot more complicated than most people (including me, maybe you, too) think it is.

Suppose your agency is next in the spotlight. And you either blew the whistle, looked the other way or didn't know what was going on but find yourself in the middle. What about the I-was-just-following-orders defense? When, where and how do you draw the line when you encounter a possible criminal or ethical situation at work? What next?

Today at 10 a.m. on Your Turn, we'll ask an expert, Washington attorney Bill Bransford. He has represented a number of feds in high-profile cases involving alleged job misconduct, or whistleblowers who got into trouble for doing their duty. Plus, Federal Times editor Steve Watkins will have the latest on the GSA situation.

Postal Picketing

Many last-minute taxpayers were handed leaflets yesterday by off-duty postal workers. The American Postal Workers Union and Mail Handlers Union decided it would be the perfect day to reach out to the people who still use the Postal Service to try to save it. The unions say the USPS plans to lay off 100,000 people, cut Saturday delivery, eliminate overnight service and set up a stand-alone health plan outside of the regular Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Gillian Brockell

Employing some the smartest minds in the country, the Centers for Disease Control is full of braaaains. The CDC recently released a preparedness plan in the event of a zombie invasion. The tongue-in-cheek plan, designed to drive traffic to general emergency preparedness information, worked so well that the CDC's website crashed. For more apocalypse scenarios governments have actually considered, including Wyoming's not-so-tongue-in-cheek bill to create its own currency, read the full Mental Floss story here.

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