Loophole Lets Members Trade Their Computers

Posted October 30, 2009 at 6:03pm

When House Members buy new computer equipment for their offices, they usually unload the old equipment on the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which keeps the usable stuff and recycles the rest.

But Members can also use a little-known — and ethically thorny — option: give their computers to another Member, saving his office the cost of buying new equipment. By keeping more of his limited office budget, the receiving Member can use the surplus on salaries, bonuses, office supplies and other official business.

Consequently, one Member uses his taxpayer-funded budget to furnish the office of another Member, who could be a political ally.

Staffers with knowledge of the practice say it’s rarely used, partly because most offices keep their computers for the full three-year warranty and because such old equipment is undesirable. But if a Member with some extra money in his office budget wants to effectively buy equipment for another Member’s office, there is little to stop him.

Oversight of the process is minimal, with Members filling out forms that transfer equipment from one office’s inventory to another. Oversight committees never look at them and don’t keep track of the transfers.

Kyle Anderson, spokesman for House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), said the initial burden is on CAO employees. Furthermore, he said, if a Member is approaching an election, he can give equipment to another office only if he buys “an equivalent— replacement.

House rules also prohibit Members from using their annual office budgets to supplement another office. Equipment transfers appear to be a loophole.

But Salley Wood, a spokeswoman for House Administration ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), said the committee would investigate any complaints of a Member not following the “spirit— of the rules. She compared it to monitoring House Web sites: The committee, she said, does not have the resources to check regularly and so relies on complaints. The House’s inventory of equipment items worth more than $500 numbers about 80,000.

Most offices appear to hand over any unused equipment to the CAO, a straightforward process in which the CAO takes over responsibility for the item. Anything that meets the CAO’s standards stays in the House inventory, and Member offices can use such items for free. Many use the inventory as a last-minute fix — a computer for an unexpected intern, for example.

Still, the frequency of office-to-office transfers is unclear. CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura declined to provide the number of transfers or the names of the participating offices; the numbers, he said, were not “readily available,— and specifics counted as “operational information about a Member’s office.— But, he said, the transfers “don’t happen very often.—