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GOLDEN HAMMER: Bringing technical know-how to Washington is getting too expensive

Energy Department program to bring contractors to D.C. hit by rising costs, unnecessary payments

- Washington Guardian - Friday, July 12, 2013

An Energy Department program to bring special technical talent to the Washington area has run up a $37 million tab because agency officials didn’t track costs adequately and gave away excessive sums for moving and living expenses, a federal watchdog says.

The report by the Energy Department Inspector General says agency officials exercised little oversight of how much they were paying to bring in contractors and those with special technical skills for temporary assignments, and it failed to explore less-expensive alternatives.

“The department lacked assurance that the cost of technical and program support provided by the facility contractor personnel assigned to Washington was both reasonable and necessary, and that this approach was the most efficient, least expensive means of obtaining needed skills,” the IG said.

That led to unreasonable payments such as $230,000 in relocation expenses for moving to the D.C. area, and 14 examples where individuals received per diem payments above what their employers allowed.

Several individuals in the program also received payments for travel and moving expenses despite the fact they received other payments specifically to cover those costs.

Commonly known as “term assignments,” the cost for bringing these technical specialists to D.C. is rising — coming to $306,000 per person in 2011.

That’s an increase of $59,000 since the last time the IG looked into the matter in 2005.

The Energy Department isn’t evaluating the costs of the program to see if they are justified and “lacked adequate guidance for administering the program,” the IG said.

For letting costs increase with little oversight or organization, the Energy Department’s term assignment program wins the Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction handed out by the Washington Guardian highlighting instances of waste, fraud and abuse in government spending.

Responding to the IG’s findings, Energy Department officials agreed the program was becoming disorganized and needed reforms.

The agency is beginning to implement a departmentwide oversight program with clear directives for hiring contractors, based on a similar program that was successful at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The IG said that, despite the ongoing problems, department oversight of the program has improved since 2005.

But problems remain, and the term assignments have little central leadership, investigators said. Energy Department laboratories are giving their employees different payments for coming to Washington.

The IG found a gap of about $21,600 among participants in the temporary duty program, ranging from $59,500 to $81,200.

Investigators also said that Energy Department officials had not evaluated whether other options that cost less could bring in the needed knowledge.

“A cost analysis, specifically required by existing department policy, had not been conducted to determine whether cost-effective alternatives to term assignments were available,” the IG said.

The IG took a sample of 96 contractors participating in the program and found that stricter controls could have saved the Energy Department at least $500,000.