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News Digest: June 25

Jun. 24, 2012 - 12:29PM   |  
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OSC warns against monitoring whistle-blowers

The Office of Special Counsel last week warned agencies that they could be reprimanded for targeting whistle-blowers and monitoring emails that report wrongdoing.

Agencies that deliberately spy on whistle-blowers’ submissions or draft submissions to OSC or inspectors general could be accused of retaliating against the employees, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a memo.

The guidance comes five months after six current and former Food and Drug Administration whistle-blowers filed a lawsuit claiming that top FDA managers monitored and seized emails from their personal email accounts.

FDA fired two of the employees and did not renew contracts for two others.

“This is the first finding that we are aware of in which a government agency has stated that there are limits on how federal agencies can monitor employee email,” Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said in an interview. Kohn represents the whistle-blowers in their lawsuit.

The suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington and at OSC, which launched an investigation to determine whether the FDA broke personnel rules.

House panel bans some bonuses at GSA

General Services Administration employees who are under investigation for misconduct would be banned from receiving bonuses under a spending bill passed Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for doling out bonuses to government employees under investigation for misconduct,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who added an amendment to the House financial services bill banning the bonuses.

GSA has come under criticism from Capitol Hill in recent months over its tendency to award generous bonuses to employees while they were being investigated for wrongdoing. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., this month revealed that GSA had paid at least $1.1 million in bonuses to 84 employees under inspector general investigation since 2008.

And lawmakers have expressed outrage that GSA gave Jeff Neely — the former Public Buildings Service commissioner for Region 9 who was responsible for a lavish $823,000 Las Vegas conference — a $9,460 bonus last year, even though officials knew the IG was preparing a devastating report on the conference. In all, five senior GSA officials — including Neely — who were investigated by the IG and later placed on leave over the Las Vegas conference received between $9,100 and $11,690 in bonuses last year, Federal Times revealed in a May 23 online report.

The spending bill does not include a pay raise for federal employees in 2013, but it also does not explicitly freeze pay.

Property reports inaccurate, GAO finds

Agencies do not track and report their property inventories accurately, according to the Government Accountability Office.

GAO visited 25 properties and found that agencies misreported their status in 19 cases, including empty properties being reported as nearly full and dilapidated buildings being reported as in fair condition.

In a report released last week, GAO recommended the government revamp its data collection and report uniform data.

It also recommended that the Office of Management and Budget develop and publish a national strategy for managing excess federal property.

Lockheed Martin wins $4.6B DISA contract

Lockheed Martin Corp. has won a multibillion- dollar contract to support the Defense Information Systems Network, beating out incumbent Science Applications International Corp.

The contract, to provide daily operations and sustainment of the Defense Department’s global data network, has a ceiling of $4.6 billion over seven years. The new contract starts July 9.

Lockheed is teaming with AT&T, ACS, Serco, BAE Systems, ManTech and others.

“A significant benefit to DoD and DISA from this contract is that the contract includes performance metrics that the contractor will be held accountable for meeting,” William Brougham Jr., vice director for DISA Network Services, said in a statement.

Subcontractors often not called to do work

Many small businesses listed as subcontracting team members on contract proposals never get called to do work once the contract is awarded, a new report says.

Large contractors often rely on small-business subcontractors to provide special capabilities to win federal contracts. However, nearly one-third of 740 small-business contractors said they have been listed on proposals but are never asked to work, according to the report released last week by American Express OPEN, which has programs to help small businesses win government contracts.

Some subcontractors had better experiences. More than 20 percent of the firms were recommended as subcontractors to other contractors, the report said.

Growing claims backlog challenges VA

The top benefits official for the Veterans Affairs Department told a House committee June 19 that VA is being aggressively innovative in trying to reach a goal of eliminating the veterans benefits claims backlog by 2015 while providing 98 percent accuracy.

The Veterans Benefits Administration is “strengthening the expertise of our workforce by changing the way we are organized and trained,” said Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, who said that of more than 600 ideas received, 40 were tested to come up with a modernized system.

But more than 900,000 claims are pending, two-thirds of them for more than 125 days, which is VA’s goal for completion. The accuracy rate on claims decisions is 86 percent.

VBA’s workforce has grown by 80 percent since 2007, but the number of backlogged claims is still growing — 360,000 more today than two years ago. Hickey said claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans account for the increase and delays, because younger vets have more complicated claims that take longer to process.

VA’s paperless claims processing system, called the Veterans Benefits Management System, will play a critical role in reducing the backlog, Chief Information Officer Roger Baker told reporters last week. Full rollout of the system will begin in September.

Over the past two years, VA has spent $9.7 million on contracts with the National Archives Records Administration to digitize veterans’ claims. The contract expires June 26, but Baker said he expects it will be renewed before then.

Coast Guard officer gets 21 months for contract fraud

Coast Guard Lt. Danielle Ferreira was sentenced to 21 months in prison last week after pleading guilty to federal wire fraud charges stemming from contract kickbacks.

While serving as a desk manager in Norfolk, Va., in 2009, Ferreira steered five ship repair contracts to a company owned by her cousin and then recommended an active Coast Guard recruiter to help find employees to do the work, according to a Justice Department news release. Once the jobs were complete, the company and recruiter kicked back about $83,000 to Ferreira and her husband, the release said.

Ferrier got $15,000 from another Coast Guard contractor after inflating the contract’s value.

SEA warns against online financial disclosure

The Senior Executives Association released a six-page paper last week urging delay and further consideration of a new mandate requiring Internet posting of top feds’ financial disclosure reports.

That requirement — set to kick in by the end of August for some 28,000 Senior Executive Service members, political appointees, and military general and flag officers — should exclude career feds if the case against the new mandate “is as one-sided as we believe,” the paper says.

Already, the new rules — part of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act signed in April — are leading many senior executives to consider retirement or reverting to a GS-15 level, the paper says.

Army bars firm co-owner from contracts

The Army has suspended the co-owner of the military’s top propaganda firm in Afghanistan from receiving contracts after revelations about the owners’ tax debts and the admission by one owner that he launched an online campaign against journalists, according to government documents.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who is on the Armed Services Committee, asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week to expand the Pentagon investigations into Leonie Industries. In a letter, Johnson cited allegations that the company may have misrepresented its finances while bidding for federal contracts and had started an online smear campaign directed against two USA Today journalists.

Camille Chidiac, who owns 49 percent of Leonie Industries, was placed on a list of people ineligible to receive federal contracts.

Chidiac acknowledged last month that he established websites in the names of USA Today journalists who had written about the company and Chidiac’s unpaid taxes.

Union challenges TSA suspensions

The American Federation of Government Employees is challenging proposed suspensions for about 20 screeners at the Fort Myers, Fla., airport.

The screeners, who allegedly failed to conduct random searches, were simply doing what they were told, union officials said.

“If they deserve discipline, so be it,” AFGE President John Gage said. “But I think there’s clearly mitigating circumstances when your supervisors are telling you to conduct business in a certain way and you follow their orders and get [punished] for it.”

The screeners are among 42 Transportation Security Administration front-line and supervisory workers who were disciplined earlier this month.

The TSA’s top manager at the airport was among those suspended.

TSA has recommended firing five workers and suspending the other 37 for two weeks in what’s been described as one of the largest disciplinary actions TSA has taken.

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