Occupy Arrogance: Hot Tubs, Secret Bonuses & Drumsticks (This is What Hypocrisy Looks Like)

 Who watches the watchdog?

By now we all know that the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency responsible for managing major expenses of other agencies, spent $823K on a lavish 2010 Las Vegas conference, reportedly one of at least 77 such boondoggles, costing over $7 million, currently under investigation. No doubt the most cringe-worthy photo from the whole disgraceful affair is that of the agency’s ex-boss sitting naked and grinning in a hot tub, two glasses of wine at his fingertips. I don’t know what’s worse: a) the arrogant disregard for  taxpayer money; b) having to write the words “naked government official” in any context; or c) the brazenness of a wife who posts this stuff on Facebook like just any other vainglorious vacation shot.

OK, wait… I think it’s actually the Facebook part, because nothing says “I don’t give a damn” and “I’m entitled” quite like a gleeful social media posting of the bad act. These are people who have no fear of being seen, or overseen, for that matter.

When you put this story together with, for instance, the ATF viral video (scary warning to employees on respecting the “chain of command”; see my separate post),  the yim-yams at the Food and Drug Administration engaged in “institutional spying” on their own employees, [1] and the 2010 SEC porn scandal, it’s clear the inmates are running the asylum.  Don’t even get me started on the Minerals Management “sex, drugs and rock and roll” episodes.

The GSA scandal is the latest gift that keeps on giving: secret bonuses of $44 million,  prizes handed out for employee rap videos celebrating big spending, and $30K for drumsticks so the agency can learn how to “teambuild.” Awww,  that’s cute. As a taxpayer I’d like to invite the responsible GSA leaders to a very special  team-building exercise in federal jail.

So back to the question of who watches the watchdog. It’s evidently not the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which gave the agency a clean bill of health just three days after the now-infamous Las Vegas funfest, finding that its code of ethics was “effectively administered.” And even though the GSA inspector general (IG) ultimately uncovered the Las Vegas abuses,  its 16 page report also led to a series of Congressional hearings and other revelations of reckless spending, fraud and abuse that had been going on for years. If the GSA headlines aren’t proof positive that government agencies need more than just an inspector general “after the fact”  system of oversight,  what are we waiting for?

Here’s a thought: the Rutgers Center of Government Compliance and Ethics [2]  has been advocating for a more proactive Federal Sentencing Guidelines-style approach to government compliance, one that addresses both culture and rigorous oversight programs within government entities. Just like those same agencies expect from the companies they regulate.

On a positive note, DOJ IG Michael Horowitz has just created a rare federal whistleblower line and that’s a step forward in the government arena. Government needs to figure this out or lose its license to operate. Because you can’t “IG” your way out of stupid.

[1] Whistleblowers say FDA has engaged in “institutional spying”  and “paranoid and retaliatory email monitoring.”

[2] The columnist is a member of the Center’s advisory board.

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Donna Boehme is Principal, Compliance Strategists LLC, a New York area based consulting firm specializing in organizational compliance, ethics and governance. She is a frequent speaker and commentator on compliance and ethics issues. Follow her on Twitter @DonnaCBoehme or write to her at dboehme@compliancestrategists.com.

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