- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

A federal probe into accounting practices at the National Capital Planning Commission has resulted in suspension for one top official accused of misusing more than $153,187 from 1997 to 1999.
The agency's misuse of funds could total more than $800,000 from 1992 to 1998, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). But investigators complained in a letter last week to Congress and President Bush that the planning commission a 12-member board appointed to oversee plans for federal buildings and monuments in the region isn't taking the matter seriously.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said internal disciplinary action against the board's chief operating officer, Connie M. Harshaw a 15-day suspension to be served in five three-day increments that included weekends was too lenient.
The letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Washington Times, maintains that under Mrs. Harshaw's direction, the planning commission "unlawfully charged $153,187 in fiscal year (FY) 1997 payroll expenditures to FY 1998."
The OSC says that's a violation of a federal law that requires payroll charges in federal agencies to be paid out of funds for the fiscal year in which they are incurred.
The letter states that an investigation conducted last year by the General Services Administration (GSA) and the consulting firm Clifton, Gunderson LLP confirmed a former planning commission staffer's accusations of illegal activity by Mrs. Harshaw.
In a telephone interview last week, Mrs. Harshaw, who still holds the chief of operations title, repeatedly professed her innocence, saying she "did not knowingly, intentionally do anything [illegal]."
"The OSC has a tendency to accept on its face value the substance of a complaint that comes from any complainant," she said. "The subject of that complaint is then guilty until proven innocent."
Mrs. Harshaw, who told The Times her annual salary at the planning commission is more than $120,000, said that when the complaint about her was made to the OSC, "there was a threat of a personnel action" against Cindy L. Snyder the former staffer who made the complaint.
"By virtue of the fact that I sit in the position that I do, I understand that I'm accountable," Mrs. Harshaw said, adding that the financial decisions at issue did not originate with her, but with her staff, which included Mrs. Snyder. The Times was unable to contact Mrs. Snyder for comment.
The OSC maintains that investigators verified Mrs. Snyder's accusations that in 1998, the planning commission charged $832,021 to prior years' accounts dating back to fiscal year 1992.
But supporting documentation for the "vast majority of the expenditures" was apparently "missing" from the planning commission's files during the 2001 investigation, the OSC said.
Sources close to the investigation said there had been some debate over whether the documents were lost or taken by someone at the planning commission. "It was just very interesting that certain records are missing," said one official, who wished to remain anonymous.
Mrs. Harshaw said the OSC "couldn't substantiate" its claims about the $832,021 because investigators had no records to support it.
Members of the planning commission say the accusations about financial mismanagement have been taken seriously and Mrs. Harshaw has been punished adequately.
"Appropriate disciplinary action has been taken," said Ash Jain, general counsel for the commission. "The matter has been adequately dealt with and [the commission] will continue to monitor financial and operational activities to ensure that a similar occurrence doesn't happen in the future."
But Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, who heads the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the District, intends to follow up on the findings of the OSC and the GSA.
"The report raises some real concerns," said Robert White, spokesman for the congresswoman.
According to the OSC, the GSA's investigation confirmed accusations that Mrs. Harshaw misused her government telephone card by frequently making personal calls on it.
She reportedly reimbursed the government in the amount of $316 for the unauthorized phone calls.
The National Capital Planning Commission is the central planning agency for the federal government, providing guidance for building and land development projects in the region.
The 12-member commission includes five citizens with experience in city or regional planning, three of whom are appointed by the U.S. president one each from Maryland, Virginia and the District and two by the D.C. mayor.
Ex officio members of the commission include the heads of those executive branch agencies with significant land holdings in the National Capital Region, the mayor of the District, the chairman of the city council and the chairmen of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate committees with oversight responsibility for the District.


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