FBI agents improperly received millions of dollars in overtime payments for hours spent exercising, watching movies and going to cocktail parties while serving in Iraq, a Justice Department audit concluded.
A report from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the FBI allowed, even encouraged, agents to list all waking hours on their time sheets, a move that violated federal pay statutes, regulations and FBI policies. The 1,150 agents who worked in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 uniformly listed 16-hour workdays for each day of their three-month tours.
The inspector general also said the FBI shifted the workweek of the agents from Monday through Friday to Sunday through Thursday, meaning they improperly received additional "Sunday pay."
"We accept that headquarters management, in an effort to quickly develop a simple system to compensate FBI employees who volunteered to leave their domestic assignments and serve in war zones, allowed a flawed system to develop and remain in place too long," FBI Assistant Director John Miller said.
"The overtime policy described in the report was discontinued and the FBI accepts all of the IG's recommendations, many of which have already been implemented."
The inspector general could not determine exactly how much money the sham overtime hours cost the federal government, but the report lists $6.4 million as a conservative estimate. Agents also improperly received about $1.4 million for "Sunday pay."
In all, the bureau paid agents a total of $44 million in overtime, the majority of it legitimate.
According to the report, a typical agent received $31,531 for overtime work during a three-month tour. The report estimates that only about $4,577 of that amount was illegitimate.
Combined with the $1,017 a typical agent improperly received for "Sunday pay," agents were paid about $5,594 more than they should have been.
But there is little chance any of that money will be paid back.
"We do not believe that there is sufficiently specific evidence regarding the time that individual agents actually worked to permit the FBI to calculate excess payments to individual employees," the IG's report said.
A less-thorough review found similar problems with FBI agents deployed to Afghanistan. The report also said the smaller number of employees of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Marshals Service who were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan also received excessive payments.
A tour in Iraq or Afghanistan is lucrative for an FBI agent. Agents who volunteer to travel to a war zone can triple their income during a tour, according to the report.
FBI agents in Iraq conducted interrogations, worked on task forces whose investigations included that of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and helped train their Iraqi counterparts.
And the assignments come with great risks. "FBI employees lived with sniper attacks, mortar fire and roadside bombs as part of their daily work environment," Mr. Miller said.
According to the inspector general, some agents and supervisors defended putting in for 16-hour days. They said they were always "on call" and 16 hours a day was a reasonable average of the amount of time they worked. Generous overtime pay was necessary to encourage people to volunteer for war zone assignments, they said.
As one agent is quoted in the report: "When you're in that environment, anything you do to survive is work for the FBI."
The report concluded that using that rationale, agents billed for time spent at cocktail parties hosted each Saturday evening by the FBI, watching DVDs at the Baghdad Operations Center and washing laundry.
The FBI has made changes that include requiring supervisors in Iraq to approve the working hours reported by agents. Previously, a supervisor in the U.S. gave approval.
"We recognize that the FBI's failure to comply with applicable laws and its own policies in the early stages of the Iraq war was understandable to some extent due to the crisis atmosphere in a war zone," the inspector general's report said. "However, the FBI has had five years since the Iraq war began to establish lawful overtime procedures, and it failed to do so prior to the initiation of this investigation."