OGE missed signs of GSA ethics violations, memo says

Monday - 8/6/2012, 11:54am EDT

A memo by a government watchdog group finds the General Services Administration's ethics program received high marks in a November 2010 study from the Office of Government Ethics. The OGE report was released one month after GSA threw the lavish Las Vegas conference that led to the firings of top officials, the resignation of Administrator Martha Johnson and a slew of congressional hearings.

The review by OGE said GSA's ethics program appeared "effectively administered and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations and policies." In addition, OGE said GSA had developed "model practices" for ethics procedures.

But, Cause of Action said OGE missed obvious warnings in its review of GSA's ethics program.

"OGE recklessly disregarded clear warning signs of waste, fraud and abuse at GSA. Furthermore, any mismanagement or fraud within the OGE is subject to review only by OGE itself, as OGE lacks an inspector general," according to the Cause of Action memo.

The Washington Post was the first to report the story.

According to Cause of Action, OGE documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed GSA's ethics program is handled through its 11 regional offices rather than directly from headquarters. Prior to its investigation of GSA, OGE recognized such a decentralized system created an increased potential for inconsistencies and deficiencies.

Despite the mention of the potential for fraud, the OGE report said the system in place at GSA was "well-managed," with GSA supervisors collecting and reviewing reports, with a final review at headquarters. OGE reviewed five of the 11 regional offices.

Cause of Action said GSA failed to have a designated agency ethics officer in place from 2007 until at least 2010, even though agencies are required to do so under the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch. OGE documents also showed that as of 2007, there were no full-time ethics officials in GSA's 11 regional offices. However there were 65 part-time workers administering "some elements of the ethics program in the regional and field offices" as well as two full-time and 48 part-time employees at GSA's central office.

During its investigation, Cause of Action also requested the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) to conduct an agencywide audit of GSA. But, CIGIE chairwoman Phyllis Fong said the council lacks authority to do such a review, according to the Cause of Action memo.

Cause of Action has sent its report to President Barack Obama with its recommendations. It is also requesting the administration review whether OGE's oversight of ethics programs should be transferred to inspectors general.

OGE said in a statement to The Washington Post that the memo "reflects a lack of understanding of OGE's authorities and mission. Laws and regulations regarding appropriations, travel, personnel, and government contracts are administered by a variety of agencies and are outside OGE's purview. OGE is not an investigatory agency, but routinely works closely with Inspectors General."

Federal News Radio has requested comments from GSA and OGE.

Federal News Radio's Jason Miller contributed to this story.

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