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Porn-surfing feds blame boredom, lack of work for misbehavior

Employees rarely face criminal prosecution for time and attendance fraud

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2014

For one Federal Communications Commission worker, his porn habit at work was easy to explain: Things were slow, he told investigators, so he perused it "out of boredom" — for up to eight hours each week.

Lack of work has emerged time and again in federal investigations, and it's not just porn, nor is it confined to the FCC. Across government, employees caught wasting time at work say they simply didn't have enough work to do, according to investigation records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"He stated he is aware it is against government rules and regulations, but he often does not have enough work to do and has free time," investigators wrote of another federal employee, this one at the Treasury Department, who viewed more than 13,000 pornographic images in a six-week span.

Investigations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Commerce Department and the General Services Administration have turned up similar cases, though memos show the employees rarely face criminal prosecution for time and attendance fraud.

A spokesman for the FCC declined to comment on what, if any, action the agency took after the FCC's inspector general singled out the eight-hour-a-week porn peeper.

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said only that the agency follows Office of Personnel Management guidelines on disciplinary matters and officials could not comment on specific cases.

In another recent case, a GSA employee who spent about two hours a day on a computer looking at pornography and dating sites "sometimes became bored during these long hours at the computer and would often use the computer for personal use to pass the time," according to a case report by the GSA inspector general last year.

In a more recent and far more costly example, U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board paralegals received salaries and bonuses for years even though they spent much of their time watching television, shopping online, exercising and wasting time on their tablet computers, according to an investigation released this week by the Commerce Department's inspector general. Investigators estimate that more than $4 million was spent paying employees for time they weren't working.

The paralegals, who can't create their own work, later told investigators that the reason was simple: Supervisors weren't giving them any assignments. Some supervisors were reluctant to give paralegals special projects out of fear that the assignments could antagonize the labor union.

Brian Miller, a former GSA inspector general who is now managing director of the consulting firm Navigant, said executives may feel reluctant to let go of employees.

"Today, federal managers are under many constraints," he said. "With hiring freezes and budget limitations, a federal manager may hoard resources, squirreling them away for fear of losing even unneeded resources.

"It takes a very strong manager to stand up and do the unpopular thing: to manage resources efficiently."

No matter what evidence the inspector general turns up, he said, it's ultimately up to the agencies to hold employees accountable.

"At the end of the day, an IG may recommend a course of action, but the IG has no power to make it happen," he said. "An IG warns, reports, and recommends, but agency managers administer disciplinary actions and make changes in the agency."

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said there is no doubt that downtime contributes to federal workplace misconduct.

"There's a reason that saying about idle hands has such a long lineage," Mr. Sepp said. "Not everyone with excess time in the workplace will spend it helping their colleagues get caught up or knitting clothes for the less fortunate," he said.

"There needs to be a balanced approach to reform here, one that provides more flexibility to reassign workers' duties, aggressive enforcement of whistleblower protections, incentives for agencies and managers that save tax dollars, and penalties for those that fail to properly oversee them," Mr. Sepp said.

Some administration officials have come under criticism for allowing workers to remain on the job even in the face of clear misconduct findings.

In March, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee railed against the Environmental Protection Agency for not firing several employees involved in misconduct investigations. The employees included a senior executive who investigators said hired friends and family and sold weight loss products from the office.

The Washington Times reported on other time and attendance issues at HUD this year. One case involved an auditor who worked on private business from the office and later said work sometimes was impossible because the department's computers were frequently down.

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