When part one of the Washington Examiner's five-part series -- “Just Sign Here: Federal workers max out at taxpayers expense” -- appeared Oct. 1, hardly anybody outside the arbitration industry had ever heard of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, or its current director, George Cohen. The FMCS is among the most obscure federal agencies, with only 233 employees and an annual budget of $50 million. The agency's mission is to provide labor-management arbitration services to governments and companies.
Considering what was going on in the agency, it appears more than a few of its employees, including several high-ranking executives, thought they were safe from prying eyes. They were wrong. Several present and former FMCS employees were outraged by what they saw and they talked to senior investigative reporter Luke Rosiak of the Examiner's watchdog staff. Between them and additional information Rosiak developed, it became clear FMCS was shot-through with waste, fraud and inefficiency. As Rosiak reported:
* 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.
And that was only the beginning of the revelations that followed in the series, including multiple examples of high-ranking FMCS executives taking advantage of federal taxpayers to equip their offices with expensive furniture, cover costly lunches and drinks at K Street restaurants, and even pay for a storage unit in Virginia for personal items. Thousands of dollars of office equipment was bought but never properly accounted for. Whenever honest employees raised questions about such outrages, they were silenced by agency officials.
Shortly after Rosiak's series was published, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa read it and dispatched a lengthy letter to FMCS Director George Cohen demanding answers to a long list of questions. On Nov. 26, the Examiner learned that Cohen has told President Obama -- who appointed him in 2009 -- that he will leave FMCS as of Dec. 31.
Some might say the resignation of a tiny federal agency’s director means little in the war against waste and fraud. But here’s the correct lesson: Investigative journalism has been empowered in ways that were unimaginable to the previous generation of reporters, so much so that not even the smallest agency is immune to exposure. That’s good news for taxpayers.