Porn peepers still working at SEC

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When a Washington headquarters employee at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was caught last year perusing pornography on his work computer, he might have feared losing his job.

Instead, the unnamed employee, whose porn-surfing spanned a near-two-month period, was back at work after a three-day suspension.

Just three days after issuing a confidential report on that employee, the SEC’s inspector general’s office told management about another porn-surfing worker - this one an enforcement branch chief.

The attorney had looked up sex websites nearly 300 times, also over a two-month period. But his job appeared safe, too, after SEC management proposed a one-day suspension, records show.

Details about the sanctions are contained in reports to Congress and records obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act. They are among several cases raising fresh questions about the SEC’s recent pledge to fire employees caught looking at pornography on the job.

In an agencywide e-mail last week, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro warned employees that “any person who violates our clear rules against this inappropriate use of the Internet faces termination of employment.”

Yet the get-tough policy comes after 33 cases of porn-viewing contractors or employees in the past five years - with no employees terminated, according to a letter to the SEC this week from Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Though five contractors were terminated and eight employees were allowed to resign before getting fired, “the SEC did not actually terminate any of the SEC employees who engaged in this sort of misconduct,” Mr. Grassley said.

“These statistics raise questions about why different employees were treated differently and why none of these 17 employees was terminated,” he said.

The SEC - not the inspector general, who investigates the cases - determines employee sanctions. SEC officials, who have said they first referred the pornography matters to the inspector general’s office, defended their handling of the cases.

“We look forward to responding to Sen. Grassley in detail,” SEC spokesman John Nester said Wednesday.

“As we noted when these reports first became public in February, we take these situations seriously and have pursued, and will continue to pursue, prompt discipline when any employee violates his or her responsibility in this manner,” Mr. Nester said.

The Times reported in February on numerous porn-viewing incidents after obtaining more than a dozen case reports through an open-records request.

Still, members of Congress and top SEC officials were alerted about the porn problem more than two years ago.

In March 2008, for instance, the SEC’s inspector general’s office sent a memo to the commission’s chief information officer stating that his office “continues to receive monthly referrals … of employees who have used their SEC-assigned computers to access Internet pornography.”

The inspector general also told Congress about the problem. Porn-related investigations were mentioned in each of the inspector general’s semiannual reports to Congress covering activities since April 2007, the records show.

What’s more, the inspector general devoted nearly two pages in one 2008 report on the topic of porn-surfing SEC employees and contractors.

Mr. Grassley’s letter to the SEC also sought details about one case he said he learned about from an anonymous whistleblower, who reported confidentially on a Los Angeles area supervisor caught trying to access pornography about 1,800 times. The tipster said the supervisor received little but “a slap on the wrist.”

The whistleblower, in a letter released by Mr. Grassley’s office, said the supervisor received a reprimand, “got a free pass” and “must have felt bulletproof.”

“From a supervision standpoint, this porn-surfing matter has been handled very badly and has resulted in massive embarrassment to the agency,” the whistleblower wrote.

Memos on the porn viewing obtained by The Times show the activities occurred during both the Obama and Bush administrations. The SEC isn’t the only agency with workers who have looked up sex sites at work; cases have been surfacing at agencies across government over the years.

Last year, The Times reported on several cases at the National Science Foundation. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general announced the suspensions of two employees for looking at pornography at work. Earlier this year, the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs reported on one employee caught looking at pornography.

The names of the SEC employees and contractors investigated were not released in the documents provided in response to The Times’ open-records request.

In a letter, the inspector general’s office said the names would not be released in part because doing so could subject individuals to “harassment and annoyance in the conduct of their official duties and private lives.”

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