‘Shared’ Staffers Draw Scrutiny

IG, CAO Want More Oversight

Posted May 20, 2008 at 6:11pm

The House Inspector General and Chief Administrative Officer want tighter supervision of the financial and technical staffers who work for multiple Congressional offices following a scandal in which a “shared employee” was caught embezzling money from Member office accounts.

House IG James Cornell and CAO Dan Beard are expected to testify today before the House Administration Committee that Congress should establish a new system to oversee shared employees, several sources said, though their recommendations were unavailable at press time. One source said both offices are exploring ways to reduce “vulnerabilities to the House arising from the use of shared employees.”

Over the past decade, Congress has seen an explosion in the number of offices that are using shared employees to handle their bookkeeping and technical support. In many offices, the part-time bookkeeper may actually be the highest-paid employee, taking into account the salary he or she is taking from each office served.

Many offices prefer to hire an outside expert to handle complex tasks such as managing the office computers and handling the books because dealing with the House rules is a highly specialized skill. But a single office may not have enough work to justify hiring a full-time employee with a high level of expertise. One staffer said offices don’t want to hand off important duties such as running a Web site or keeping office finances to a legislative assistant who has other responsibilities and no technical expertise.

The result is that there are now about two dozen financial staffers and another dozen or so information technology staffers in the House who function essentially as independent contractors competing with each other for “clients” and working for as many different offices as they can handle.

Sources say the IG first began looking into shared employees after discovering that Laura Flores, serving as an office manager for three Congressional offices, had billed the offices for reimbursement of supplies and subscriptions that she had not purchased. She also presented bills for reimbursement to multiple offices. Flores pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of wire fraud and was sentenced to six months in prison.

The CAO’s budget request for 2009 included a $14 million increase over its $114 million budget for 2008, intended in part to provide more services to the large class of new Members expected to join the House in 2009, given the already large number of retirements. The budget request envisions providing “increased financial services” and “additional technical support” to Member offices, and House sources suggest the office is hoping to begin offering bookkeeping services and IT assistance to new Members of Congress as an option they can choose in lieu of independent shared employees now providing those services.

According to payroll data compiled by LegiStorm, the salaries of many of these shared employees have skyrocketed over the past few years. For example, Susan Anfinson, a financial aide, earned just over $40,000 in 2003 from eight Congressional offices. In 2007, according to payroll records complied by LegiStorm, she earned over $141,000 in paychecks from 13 different offices.

Several shared employees have more than doubled their salaries in the past five years, according to LegiStorm’s data. April Blankenship, a financial staffer for Republicans and Democrats, earned just under $50,000 in 2003 and just over $147,000 in 2007; Paul Nenninger earned under $73,000 in 2002 and about $159,000 in 2007, all from Texas Republicans. Thomas Gallagher, an IT staffer, earned about $49,000 in 2005 and over $105,000 in 2007.

The shared employees function essentially as independent contractors or vendors, with two key exceptions: As employees of the House, they have their benefits covered and office space provided, though many apparently work mostly out of their homes; and they are bound by the House employees’ caps on total salary and outside earnings limits when their salary exceeds $114,000.

But in several cases, the shared employees bring on family members to share their workload. Susan Anfinson works with her husband, Ed, and his father, Tom, the former chief financial officer in the House.

Tom Anfinson told Roll Call that he understands the IG’s interest in seeing some changes in the system because there are many more people offering their services as shared employees than there were a decade ago. “When I started 12 years ago there was one person doing this. Now there are 20,” Anfinson said. “People go to work for finance [in the CAO’s office] for six months, then they go out on their own.”

But Anfinson also said there is no reason for the House to prohibit experts in the finance system from making a living providing that service. “Why should we be punished because we are able to provide our customers with a level of services they cannot get somewhere else?”

Congressional offices can purchase some services from outside vendors — including some computer and IT services — but because of the sensitivity of House finances, bookkeeping must be done by House employees. Anfinson said, “I have been trying to get the House administrator for years to say that you don’t have to be an employee, that you could be a contractor.”

Part of the concern about shared employees arises from the fact that there appears to be no set price for the services they provide. For instance, Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.) use the same shared employee for bookkeeping services, but Rehberg paid her about $24,500 in 2007 while Filner paid only $16,500.

A spokesman for another office that uses shared employees said these kind of disparities don’t matter to the individual offices. “We don’t care what other people pay her,” this source said. “What we pay is what we feel her work is worth.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who pays Imran Awan, a shared employee, to provide technical support in his office, said he has been extremely happy with the service he receives, and that it is better and cheaper than it was when the House was providing all of the IT service for his office.

Meeks called Awan “a gem” and said that if the House were to provide these services instead of the shared employees, “only a few people [could] get their foot in the door. I like the fact that there are opportunities for people to get in the door and not be excluded.” Meeks said that Congressional offices function like independent businesses, trying to get the best service for the best price. “What I’m looking for is quality, not bureaucracy,” Meeks said.

Melissa Giaimo contributed to this report.