First there were $16 muffins and $8 cups of coffee; then came emails suggesting that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. fudged the truth about “Operation Fast and Furious”; and now it’s a Justice Department official using taxpayer funds to “facilitate a physical relationship with a woman in Florida.”
And the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to know why the department did not take stronger action against the official, then a supervisor in the Civil Rights Division, after his misuse of funds was discovered.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, in a Sept. 28 letter, asked Mr. Holder to explain why the supervisor, Darryl Foster, apparently did not have to reimburse the government for money he spent on trips to meet with the Miami woman, including hotels and rental cars.
He said expenses for the trips were paid for by taxpayers even on days he was not working and the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that in late 2007 or early 2008, Mr. Foster began extending his work travel to Miami to meet with the unidentified woman.
On another occasion, Mr. Grassley said Mr. Foster flew a male friend from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Las Vegas to meet “largely for recreational purposes.” He said taxpayers also picked up that tab, including airfare, hotel costs and rental car.
Mr. Grassley said email correspondence between Mr. Foster and the unidentified male said such things as, “Make sure you leave me some golf time!!” and “Thought we were going to the Grand Canyon on Saturday??”
The Iowa lawmaker wants to know why Mr. Foster was neither fired nor apparently demoted after the OIG caught him misusing thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on airfare, hotels and car rentals to travel around the country. He said Mr. Foster continued to use his government credit card and make personal charges on it — including cash advances — even after the OIG investigation ended.
Mr. Foster was suspended for seven days and reassigned to a different job in the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section. Mr. Grassley said the transfer was ordered despite “his egregious misuse of travel funds” and that Mr. Foster remains eligible for a $25,000 buyout for early retirement.
“At a time when many Americans cannot find work, the prospect that employees like Foster might be able to take this retirement package with hardly any consequences resulting from their abuse is disturbing,” Mr. Grassley said. “With the economic realities our country is facing, permitting waste and abuse at the department is inexcusable.”
Sources said Mr. Foster made more than 10 taxpayer-paid trips to Miami in 2008 alone. His female friend was identified only as the president of an organization. Mr. Grassley called the relationship a possible conflict of interest because Mr. Foster was able to approve government contracts for the woman’s organization.
Reached at his Justice Department office, Mr. Foster declined to comment, saying only, “I am not interested in discussing that.” The OIG also declined comment, although it told Mr. Grassley that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had declined prosecution in the case.
The Justice Department cited the Privacy Act and the department’s confidentiality policy regarding personnel decisions in refusing to answer questions about Mr. Foster. Spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the department does not comment publicly “on the merits of specific allegations of misconduct about individual department employees.”
At the time of the trips, Mr. Foster was a supervisory test coordinator in the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section. His job was to investigate and conduct tests of housing providers to ensure compliance with the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and other federal civil rights laws.
The OIG began investigating Mr. Foster in June 2009 after Justice Department employees filed a whistle-blower complaint. Mr. Grassley said the Foster expenses were documented in a February 2010 report, which has not been made public. He said the whistle-blowers charged that Mr. Foster had engaged “in a long pattern of travel abuse,” adding that the OIG review did not address all the allegations against him.
‘The taxpayer’s dime’
Mr. Grassley said OIG investigators were not able to document “countless other occasions” when Mr. Foster was alleged to have “extended his travel to other places on the taxpayer’s dime.” He also said Justice Department employees reported that Mr. Foster took his files with him when he was transferred, “thus carrying out of [the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section] the only way to document the full extent of his egregious misuse of travel funds.”
“I have received no indication from the OIG that the department required Foster to repay the funds he abused,” wrote Mr. Grassley. “He was apparently not demoted.”
Documents attached to the Grassley letter list Mr. Foster’s government credit card charges through February of this year, months after the OIG investigation concluded and he was transferred. Notations on the document for the vast majority of the charges indicate, “I can offer no justification.”
The charges include hotel rooms in Florida and the District, cash advances, gasoline and other charges apparently unrelated to his work.
“The fact that he was apparently being asked to justify the charges suggests that his supervisors were aware this was taking place, as I understand such an accounting is not a standard practice for employees with department charge cards,” Mr. Grassley said. “Even if Foster was making the payments on the card from his own pocket, this would essentially constitute an interest-free personal loan.”