Fix It Gently

Posted May 23, 2008 at 4:53pm

As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Yet, there’s a possibility that the House Administration Committee could bureaucratize financial and information technology services to Member and committee offices in response to just two apparent cases of serious wrongdoing by “shared employees.”

House Inspector General James Cornell testified last week that his office had found 51 House employees who were on the payrolls of at least three and up to 14 offices, performing bookkeeping and IT services. Cornell acknowledged that they “fulfill a legitimate need” and “their availability allows Congressional offices to meet their support needs without having to hire full-time personnel.”

Nevertheless, Cornell found that “current controls over the practices of shared employees are either unenforced or weak” and “place Congressional offices at significant risk of illegal or other improper activity.”

So far, just two cases of serious wrongdoing have emerged. In one, a bookkeeper embezzled $169,000 from three House offices by submitting false expense vouchers. She was convicted of fraud and was sentenced to six months in jail. The IG reported that an ongoing investigation has turned up a similar case of self-approved improper payments.

The IG report, endorsed in full by Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, found that the House exerts inadequate oversight over the employees. The offices they work for know they are working for others but may not know which offices, creating a potential for conflicts of interest and bypassing of House security procedures.

Also, the IG said, some shared employees have passed a Member’s work off to others not on his or her payroll, worked at home or elsewhere, stored official House documents off-site and used their House positions to market their services privately — all potentially violations of law or House rules.

In addition, the IG found that some IT shared employees were serving as system administrators for multiple offices and were the only persons to be notified if questionable activities were discovered. And some bookkeepers were approving their own expense requests without supervision.

Some of the IG’s recommendations make sense. Member and committee offices ought to know who their employees are working for and shared employees ought to be fully informed of House rules and asked to comply with them — although the rules also ought to be made flexible enough to permit telecommuting.

What does not make sense is the centralization of IT and bookkeeping services under the CAO, as suggested in the IG’s recommendation for “exploring options for augmenting House-provided financial services … that will both enhance the control environment and reduce the administrative burden on individual offices.” This sounds like bureaucratization of functions that are being performed to satisfaction on a more or less free-market basis.

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) have taken the recommendations under advisement and, fortunately, are not rushing toward conclusions. They seem to appreciate that shared employees perform valuable and cost-saving functions but may need more supervision. We trust they will impose fixes gently.