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tchdog: Follow The Money

Federal employees ask taxpayers to buy them personal items

By Sarah Westwood | December 31, 2014 | 4:16 pm
Photo - Staff expected to work in the rain asked for taxpayers to buy them umbrellas. The GAO said no. (iStock) Staff expected to work in the rain asked for taxpayers to buy them umbrellas. The GAO said no....

Government agencies get away with spending their appropriations on a variety of items the average person would deem questionable, but some expenses have deviated so far from spending rules that Congress’ watchdog has forbidden them.

From party refreshments to umbrellas for government employees who have to go out in the rain, the Government Accountability Office has decided many purchases over the years have been against regulations that prohibit taxpayer dollars from being spent on anything that isn’t a “necessary expense.”

GAO applies laws that limit the scope of what agencies can do with money set aside for specific purposes on a “case-by-case basis,” according to Red Book, its treatise on appropriation law.

“The Comptroller General has never established a precise formula for determining the application of the necessary expense rule,” GAO said in Red Book.

The watchdog said its determinations are instead subject to differences between government agencies and their “changing needs.”

“Our decisions indicate a willingness to consider changes in societal expectations regarding what constitutes a necessary expense,” GAO said.

When determining whether spending is necessary, GAO noted “the important thing is not the significance of the proposed expenditure itself or its value to the government,” but only how closely it hews to the specific goal of the appropriation.

For example, statutes prohibit the government from giving its staff free food because “government salaries are presumed adequate to enable employees to eat regularly.” They also ban most entertainment expenditures.

Federal agencies and lawmakers alike have long sought GAO’s guidance about whether certain personal or unrelated expenses can be justified under the law.

Congressmen have asked whether they can use taxpayer money to pay for their spouses to travel with them on official business.

The military has asked if it could use appropriated funds to water a golf course.

Government staff “who must frequently go out in the rain” have asked for taxpayers to buy them raincoats and umbrellas. They have even asked if the government would pay for their commutes between home and work.

The Combined Federal Campaign, which raises funds for various charities via donations from federal employees, asked whether it could purchase food that would add to the “celebratory nature” of one of its events.

GAO said no in all those cases.

While the watchdog denied one agency’s request to send Christmas cards overseas to “important individuals” using government funds, it maintains that Christmas decorations are permissible expenses as long as the decor is “appropriately sensitive” about displaying religious symbols.

But some unique purchases have made it through the watchdog’s process for deciding whether expenses follow appropriation rules.

For example, the Interior Department once secured permission to buy guns and bullets with its construction money to shoot woodpeckers that were damaging power transmission lines because GAO determined the purchase was necessary to protect the lines.

“The views of the woodpeckers were not solicited,” GAO noted.

The watchdog said it has not adopted rigid policies as to what type of purchases are banned under statutes that concern conferences and meetings.

“The statutory language is broad and could presumably be construed to cover any situation where two or more persons are gathered together in one place,” GAO said.

In one instance, GAO granted the Department of Agriculture’s request to repay a voucher “for rental of a chartered bus for the transportation of female guests from Albuquerque to Grants, New Mexico, and return, for purposes of providing social and recreational services” because there was no specific rule banning such an expense.

In other cases, GAO has ruled against conference expenditures that extend to non-government personnel.

8Comments 8Comments
Author:

Sarah Westwood

Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner

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