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May 4, 2012

Wrongdoing on the Taxpayers’ Dime

The taxpaying public’s confidence in the federal government suffered more setbacks recently with two scandals:  excessive spending by the General Services Administration and allegations of misconduct within the Secret Service.  The actions by employees in these agencies have led to internal and congressional investigations that call into question the culture of the bureaucratic hierarchy.
 
Americans may not be as familiar with the GSA, which was established in 1949 to streamline the administration of the federal government, from purchasing paper clips to managing leases for office space.  In effect, it is an agency that is supposed to help other agencies operate efficiently and should therefore be a model of fiscal rectitude.  The GSA’s lower-profile, behind-the-scenes work was elevated to a higher-profile public square when its $822,000 “retreat” in Las Vegas made the GSA the most recent example of excessive, wasteful spending by the federal government.
 
Showing blatant disregard for taxpayers who would foot the bill for its over-the-top conference in 2010, the GSA pulled out all the stops with lavish entertainment (including clowns and a psychic), gifts and luxurious accommodations knowing full well the taxpayers were picking up the tab.  Somehow I don’t think the GSA needs to re-hire the mind-reader to figure out how taxpayers feel about paying for 300 federal employees to viva Las Vegas on their dime.
 
Yet another shoe dropped amid reports of alleged delinquency by federal agents on assignment in Colombia.  This time the scandal affected a federal agency that until now has enjoyed longstanding repute with the American public for its code of professional conduct.  The Secret Service has earned a prestigious reputation for its protective services to American presidents beginning after President McKinley’s assassination in 1901.  
 
Now the esteemed law enforcement agency, whose no-nonsense, clean-cut agents are renowned for wearing tinted sunglasses and corralling rope-lines at presidential events, is suffering a black eye from alleged carousing by a dozen agents soliciting prostitutes while on assignment in Colombia.  By any measure, Secret Service agents who would hire foreign female escorts for nighttime entertainment while on assignment exhibit the judgment skills of a class of nitwits.  The security risks associated with U.S. agents’ allowing strangers into their hotel room in a foreign country are obvious.  Let’s hope the President is correct when he claimed it was a few knuckleheads exercising poor judgment.
 
If the Secret Service incident is not isolated and instead exposes a broader culture within military, law enforcement and security forces that says this type of behavior is okay, that is a big problem.
 
That’s why I’m asking more questions.  I’m glad the Secret Service acted swiftly to fire agents, revoke security clearances by those involved, and issue new rules explicitly prohibiting agents from hosting foreign nationals in their hotel rooms when traveling overseas.  The Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General will be independently reviewing the Secret Service’s internal inquiry.  An independent and transparent review will help restore credibility to the Secret Service.  As Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I take seriously my constitutional oversight responsibilities.  It would be negligent to sweep this incident under the rug and forget about it. Getting the facts on the table will help determine whether there is a broader cultural problem that needs fixing.
 
A Washington culture of overspending, mismanagement and layers of ineffective leadership within the vast federal government begs for enforceable accountability and transparency.
 
Taxpayers are reminded over and over again about the $15.6 trillion national debt and unrestrained spending that racks up deficits year after year.  Looming shortfalls in the nation’s entitlement programs demand more effective stewardship of tax dollars.  And when scandals such as clowns in Vegas and prostitutes in Cartagena keep cropping up, the people’s trust is further violated.
 
From many years of oversight work, I’d say Washington’s modus operandi is that it’s easier to go along to get along.  As an advocate on Capitol Hill for whistleblowers and watchdogs, I work for sunshine laws and reforms that will keep public the people’s business and strengthen our system of checks and balances.  My oversight isn’t based on the political party of the President.  Over the years, I have been an equal opportunity watchdog.  Leaving no stone unturned is the surest way to root out wrongdoing and hold the government accountable to the people it serves.