The incident, described in testimony last July 18 at the second in a series of oversight hearings on the FBI convened by the Judiciary Committee, exposed a double standard for discipline of Senior Executive Service and non-SES employees in the FBI.
The GAO findings were released by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the committee, and by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the committee. Grassley and Leahy requested the GAO review. Although FBI Director Robert Mueller has promised equity in Bureau discipline, the senators have expressed interest in legislation to eliminate this double standard.
"This unequivocally confirms the reality of the double standard for discipline that we examined in our FBI oversight hearings," said Leahy. "Morale, discipline and management all suffer when double standards like this are tolerated, and there should be no place for them in the FBI. We will continue to work with Attorney General Ashcroft and with Director Mueller to fix this problem, and we will consider putting forward legislation to make it a permanent fix."
"The details of this report show why public trust in the FBI has eroded," Grassley said. "Senior FBI officials have no business adjudicating the misconduct of others in the Senior Executive Service. It devastates morale to have rank-and-file agents given different penalties than senior officials for the same kinds of offenses. Director Mueller has taken some positive steps to revamp the FBI since he assumed his post in September. But it will be a Herculean task for him to reign in an agency so rife with institutional arrogance. For starters, all former and current FBI agents associated with wrongdoing in the Potts retirement dinner should be held accountable by returning money to the taxpayers. In addition to internal discipline, the double standard has to be a primary target of FBI reform legislation that Congress should take up later this year."
The censured FBI officials include two current heads of FBI field offices who received expense money for attending a training conference in 1997 which lasted just 90 minutes, including lunch, and coincided with their attendance at a retirement dinner for former Deputy Director Larry Potts. After what the GAO calls a "thorough" internal investigation, the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility found that the training conference had "dubious substance" and recommended that the FBI convene a Senior Executive Service Board to consider whether the SACs had falsified travel vouchers. Board members found their SES colleagues guilty only of "inappropriate travel," a finding upheld in 1999 by Potts' successor as Deputy Director. A subsequent FBI Law Enforcement Ethics Unit study concluded that the internal investigation "clearly" showed that the offense was "voucher fraud" and that the lenient disciplinary action reflected a double standard that imposed less severe punishment on SES employees.
Former FBI Director Freeh had previously declared a "bright line" policy under which FBI officials who engaged in dishonest conduct would be fired.
The GAO found no evidence of similar misconduct in connection with the retirement of former Director Freeh, who declined to appear at the Judiciary Committee's first FBI oversight hearing in June 2001, at which FBI discipline issues were raised.
FBI officials testified at the July 18 Judiciary Committee oversight hearing that, after receiving the Ethics Unit study, Director Freeh had created a single disciplinary system for all FBI employees to replace the separate systems for SES and non-SES personnel. During Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings later in July, Director Mueller said that senior FBI officials should be "held to a higher standard" because they "serve as example for others in the FBI."