I was hired by The GSA in 2000, as a Financial Management Analyst. In 2002 I was officially hired into civil service. Not to toot my own horn, but I was damn good at my job. I was also considered to be outspoken, and opinionated. Some people may not have liked my personality, but I had earned respect because of my integrity and tenacity. I was also known for telling the truth, although it wasn’t always appreciated. Truth happens to be for me, the one aspect of humanity that should always be honored. Telling it gets me into quite a bit of trouble actually; but those predicaments I consider to be character building exercises in this game we call life.
My primary work for GSA was in the Accounts Receivable Department for what was then the Federal Technology Service. I was basically a bill collector, and frankly it bored me. The only part of that job that I found exciting was the research, and finding out the why. In 2011, various Department of Homeland Security Agencies owed GSA several million dollars. After numerous teleconferences with my financial counterparts, my frustration was at its peak. I picked up the phone and called a contractor who worked for the Program that I supported. His name was Vince. He was new, young, inexperienced and to be honest, knew nothing about Appropriations Law. FEDSIM – the program I supported, along with most agencies are keen to hire young people, but are especially lax when it comes to training, trust me on that! I asked him to email me the backup support that he provided to our clients at DHS. He did, and as I sat staring at the excel spreadsheet I noticed an asterisk on the bottom left along with the words “S.I.K. Repayment”.
When you work in an accounting/financial position especially in the Government, you take notice of the footnotes. Those are important. Footnotes are where secrets are buried, and getting to the truth frankly is the equivalent of an archaeological dig. Luckily for me though, I always carried a shovel. Those come in handy in Washington, believe me! I picked up the phone, and once again called Vince. I had to know what that notation meant. He casually explained to me that it was a form of financial tracking to keep tabs on “the money that DHS Headquarters borrowed from the other DHS components in exchange for use of no year funds on the new contract”.
In an effort to maintain my professionalism I didn’t utter the slew of expletives that ran through my head at that moment. Instead, I sat in silence dumbfounded. He had absolutely no idea that what he just shared with me was information on illegal activities. He didn’t know appropriations law. I did though, and I certainly wasn’t about to fill him in on that little tidbit until I knew more. I casually asked him to send me the notes and emails that he had so that I could maintain them for the file. He did so because he didn’t know any better, and because he trusted me. Unfortunately, that action later cost him tremendously. The real culprits of course stayed on and some went on to retire normally, without penalty or repercussion because that is how Washington works.
What I ultimately discovered frankly made me sick to my stomach. Due to poor Project Management, the contract with DHS meant a return of $11M at the end of 2011. The contract was part of the effort in the Government to upgrade and in some cases establish data lines. It was cancelled funding and would mean that those DHS components would have to report that to Congress. Of course, we all know what that means: Congress cuts the purse strings in the following year. DHS I&A was going to lose $2.1M, ICE $1.3M, CBP $1.0M, NPPD $3.2M, ESD $596k, and $1.4M for technical components of the contract. I researched all of it, and formulated a spreadsheet of my findings. The borrowed dollars totaled $9,935,788.85. In order to trace back the funding, I called my contact over at Department of Homeland Headquarters and asked her to email me the payment history of our bills. The common thread was of course the purchase order number. It was referenced in their accounting system buried in the accounting data.
The GSA Project Manager at the time coined the phrase “Service in Kind”. She wasn’t a good Project Manager by any stretch of the imagination. I had personally witnessed her playing “fast and loose” with the rules during her role in an agreement with WMATA. To this day, they still owe GSA in excess of $100k, and there were in my opinion, questionable contractual practices.
The DHS agreement with GSA was sadly managed much in the same manner; and once again, she overstepped her authority. She sent for DHS approval an email that proposed the following: Instead of giving back the components the remaining unused funding, DHS Headquarters would use it to pay for goods/services it ordered on the old contract. In exchange, the components would borrow HQ no year funding on the new contract for goods/services they ordered in the future. According to one email I have she wrote, “The fee structure for ESD is capped at 2.5%. Since ESD will be providing the funds, ICE will benefit from a lesser fee charge”. I also have another email where a DHS Project Manager sent a potential outline of future expenditures on the new contract using the $2.1M of borrowed funding. Management was not only aware, they approved of the action in order to save face. There were numerous high level meetings about the matter prior to the project manager sending it.
I called for a meeting with my manager and told her what was going on, and what I had learned. She sent the information to her supervisor who was not at all a fan of mine, nor was I hers. I don’t know what bothered her more; the fact that I was making waves, or the fact that I did so without a degree. At the conclusion of that meeting, I was told that “management would look into it”. I already knew how that was going to turn out, so I continued my research without them and kept a separate file at home, complete with all the printed out emails that I had from DHS Project Managers and officials approving the “Service in Kind” agreement. E-mails sometimes had ways of disappearing from the server, and I wasn’t about to take chances. 16yrs experience taught me that valuable lesson.
The new contract began in 2012, and with that came a newly found, and rather unexpected alliance with a DHS Director. She and I discussed at great length the illegality of the actions taken. I had a tremendous amount of respect for her. She was honest and fair, and like me, wanted to do the right thing. I highly suspect that it was because of her (though of course I can’t prove it) that the DHS Auditors found out about the agreement, and sent an email to GSA’s legal counsel. DHS Acting Associate General Counsel sent an email to Assistant General Counsel, GSA Personal Property Division inquiring about “this transaction that we are puzzling with”. The response DHS received back was a polite, and “politically correct” answer. It was merely a work of fiction, and read rather like a literary version of the game “Hot Potato”.
I couldn’t be sure if those DHS Auditors knew the entire truth about both contracts and the various entities involved because in the end, their inquiry determined no wrong doing. They had to look at both contracts, and the internal DHS to DHS purchase order numbers, because those combined would have reflected the repayment, had they known where to look. I continued my research, and constantly brought up the issue to my supervisor. The right thing to do was to give back the money. That was the legal, ethical, and appropriate thing to do. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I finally asked my supervisor for a formal audit of both contracts, and even offered to do it myself. Utterly infuriated, she said to me “we have no need of your research into this matter” because it was “being handled by management”. I believe “handled” is the new code word for “buried”, but I can’t confirm that. The definition is mysteriously missing from the federal employment manual.
Shortly after that last inquiry with my boss I was furloughed. During that time, I found myself sitting in a greenroom of a familiar news outlet where I met Congressman Darrell Issa. He’s just as fierce and intelligent in person as he is on tv. I became a fan of his during the coverage of the GSA Vegas scandal. That certainly said something because I’ve never been a fan of Politics, or of Political figures! He gave me some rather poignant and helpful advice that day. I carry that with me as I sit and type this.
There are so many misrepresentations of the truth that I’m surprised that GSA is even able to keep the story straight. Among my favorites are “the funds aren’t commingled with other funds”. They were in fact commingled, because the internal Financial System used at the time allowed for billing at an account level. It billed on a “first in, first out basis” which meant that clients had absolutely no way at all in ensuring that correct funding was used in the appropriate fiscal year for billing. I won’t bore you with technical details but I can assure you that it was a mess, as is the “new and improved” one.
I have many reasons for writing this, but the first and foremost is that it’s time for some house cleaning. I stand by every single word that I’ve written, and every ounce of accounting research that I did. Someone needs to stand up and say enough is enough, because clearly right now Washington isn’t.