Wednesday, May 30, 2001

President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” school reform proposal passed in the House last week. Considering what a colossal black hole the U.S. Department of Education has become, the $24 billion plan would be more appropriately dubbed: No Dime Left Behind.

If Beltway pols were truly interested in educational accountability, they wouldn’t be funneling billions of dollars through a government bureaucracy that can’t keep track of its funds. The Education Department failed its last three financial audits and is on track to fail again. On the same day the House approved Bush’s school spending package, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein issued indictments against 11 people involved in a theft ring of outside contractors working with Education Department employees. Three former Education Department workers have already pled guilty.

I read the federal grand jury’s 64-page indictment papers over the weekend. I wish every member of Congress would do the same. This million-dollar criminal enterprise is just the tip of the iceberg of fraudulent federal spending “for the children.”

The ring centered around Elizabeth C. Mellen, an award-winning, high-ranking telecommunications specialist in the Education Department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer. Her indicted co-conspirators include her children and husband, an employee at the Environmental Protection Agency; her sister and two nieces (both of whom worked in the Education Department’s financial assistance office); her nephew (who worked as a technical specialist in the Education Department’s financial assistance office); and a Bell Atlantic employee.

Mellen and her family apparently turned the Education Department into their own Home Shopping Network. The indictment says Mellen directed the Bell Atlantic worker, Maurice Hayes, to order equipment through his company’s outside contract (paid for by the Education Department and subsidized by taxpayers). She then had various contract employees deliver her $300,000 worth of electronic goods. In exchange, the contract employees collected more than $600,000 in false overtime pay.

Mellen’s sister reportedly visited her workstation several times to shop from electronics catalogs; others put in their orders by phone or e-mail. According to the indictment, Mellen plundered public funds to pay for: 10 Gateway computers and accessories, 15 printers, 4 Yamaha CD drives, 9 laptops for family birthday and graduation gifts, a 61” Sony television, and 7 cell phones (on which a total of nearly 12,000 calls were made).

Also: 169 cordless phones (46 with caller ID, 5 with headsets), 6 Olympus digital cameras and 4 Olympus printers, 8 Sony digital cameras and accessories, 4 Sony digital camcorders and accessories, 4 Sony Handycams and accessories, 4 Sony video Walkmans, 7 PalmPilot personal organizers, 50 Motorola Talkabouts, and 2 Philips audio CD recorders.

In addition, Mellen arranged for a toll-free telephone number to be routed through the Education Department so that family members and friends could call Mellen’s sister’s home in Mechanicsville, Md., without any toll charges. She also ordered the Education Department’s Bell Atlantic contract employees, at taxpayer expense, to install an additional phone line in her apartment and an extra phone jack in her sister’s home.

Finally, Mellen used outside contractors as family chauffeurs and handymen. She ordered them to drive to Baltimore to purchase crab cakes for her, shuttle her daughter and granddaughter to a medical facility, powerwash her son’s deck and perform other yard cleanup.

The Education Department can’t claim such theft is rare. It doesn’t know. Government auditors have identified accounting discrepancies totaling up to $6 billion. Federal education aid has been embezzled to pay for luxury cars, real estate, diapers and rent. If this agency were a private company, it would have been shut down by government regulators long ago. Instead, it grows fatter and more unaccountable every year. Republicans, who once led the crusade to eliminate the department, are now tripping over each other to feed the beast.

“The federal role in education is not to serve the system. It is to serve the children,” the Education Department’s motto preaches. I imagine Mrs. Mellen told herself the same as she phoned in another electronics order for her children and licked the crab cake crumbs off her light and greasy fingers.

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