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Bureaucrats at tiny federal agency FMCS buy legions of luxuries with purchase cards

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Part one of a five-part Washington Examiner series, "Just Sign Here: Federal Workers Max Out at Taxpayer Expense." See the entire series at this link.

One federal employee leased a $53,000 take-home car with taxpayer money in apparent defiance of federal regulations and regularly billed the government for service at shops such as BMW of Fairfax.

Others charged the government monthly for family members’ cell phones and high-end TV packages and Internet at home — and even at second homes.

Managers freely made out checks to employees without requiring documentation of how it would be spent, giving $1,316 directly to one who said she was reimbursing herself for furniture she bought for a “home office” and using convenience checks to give workers bonuses.

Government employees used federal purchase cards to order items such as a $560 Bose stereo and $1,490 for two high-definition televisions that could not be located.

All of these examples happened at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an obscure runaway government agency where the median annual salary is $120,000.

That amount far exceeds the national median household income but it wasn't enough for many FMCS employees, many of whom routinely charged nearly every conceivable expense to government credit cards known as “purchase cards,” according to bank records reviewed by the Washington Examiner.

Even the bank didn’t know where much of the money went, because it was paid using checks with an “illegible payee.”

Just Sign Here

Federal Workers Max Out at Taxpayer Expense

A five-part series by the Washington Examiner watchdog team
Tuesday: Bureaucrats at tiny agency buy legions of luxuries with purchase cards
Wednesday: Reckless FMCS spending goes straight to the top
Thursday: FMCS heads forced whistleblower to retract fraud complaint
Friday: Federal officials cede authority to outsiders who write own contracts
Monday: FMCS fired wounded warrior whistleblower after ICU stay
Data: FMCS salaries and bonuses
View the whole series

Got tips?

Do you know more about what's going on at the FMCS -- or any other federal agency? Contact Luke Rosiak at lrosiak@washingtonexaminer.com.

Bluetooth earpieces and leather-bound Kindle e-readers for large groups of employees. More than $200 for a "table lamp." Coat racks for two employees costing nearly $400. Air purifiers. A $2,300 cabinet to house an equally expensive TV in an official's office.

In two years, the 233-person agency bought at least 38 LCD projectors costing up to $9,500 each.

Employees bestowed expensive awards and tokens of gratitude at every conceivable opportunity, spending more than $30,000 in two years on picture frames alone, ostensibly for certificates marking workers’ tenure at the agency and other occasions.

They spent $3,930 at Balfour Products, a company listed in expense records as selling "jewelry, watches [and] clocks" and items akin to class rings.

In mere months, the agency spent at least $6,500 at Image Pointe, a union swag company, on "promotional" items designed to advertise the federal agency, including towels with the FMCS logo, coasters, hats, and lights.

Officials with FMCS declined to grant any interviews with employees regarding any of these purchases, or allow an Examiner reporter to visit.

Instead, the officials issued a short statement saying the damning bank records and internal emails only came to light because of a “disgruntled FMCS employee.”

But it wasn't "disgruntled employees" who charged small amounts at grocery stores near their homes on weekends. Staffers shopping in everyday stores such as Best Buy and CVS regularly purchased convenience items as trivial as "pencil pouches" for $30 each.

James C. Donnen, the agency’s IT director, had the government pay $219 a month for internet at his home in West Virginia, $60 a month for a landline there, $60 a month for Internet at another home he kept in Virginia, and $181 a month for two cell phones. The outgoing voicemail on one of those cellular lines identifies it as being for his wife, Tara.

Donnen got a bonus — as did half of all FMCS employees — of $3,000 on top of a $113,000 salary, even though he had to spend $500 on Experts-Exchange, a message board where beginner technologists ask questions of better-qualified ones. (There are many free message boards performing the same service.)

He regularly wildly overpaid for unnecessary items on his government card, spending, for example, $500 apiece for USB thumb drives, $710 apiece for computer monitors and $5,500 for a device to keep computers' clocks in sync.

Donnen is, at least, a fan of in-depth coverage of world affairs: He charged his Kindle subscription to USA Today to the government.

The federal government was a regular customer of the coffee shops and restaurants that surround the FMCS's K Street headquarters, with Cosi's, K Street Cafe and Bagel, and Firehook restaurant raking in the government purchase card dough.

FMCS employee Lynda G. Lee had the feds pick up the tab at Thirsty's Sports Bar, while colleague Linda Gonzalez shopped at Barnes and Noble and Crate and Barrel.

There are supposed to be controls on what types of purchases government credit cards will process, but those controls can be short-circuited by, as Gonzalez did, requesting in an email that “I would like my Visa purchase card ‘unblocked’ for any unexpected costs,” according to emails obtained by the Examiner.

Wednesday: Reckless FMCS spending goes right to the top.

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Author:

Luke Rosiak

Senior Watchdog Reporter/Data Editor
The Washington Examiner