Whether it was a public relations headache, a major management meltdown or disagreements that prompted weeks of uncertainty, federal agencies and top goverment officials provided plenty of fodder this year for their critics — and the news media.
We asked readers to opine on the biggest “oops” moments of 2011, and with more than 7,500 votes cast, they said that continuing incidents of waste, fraud and abuse were the most notable missteps of the year.
What do we think? Here’s our list of the government’s 11 biggest “oops” moments of 2011:
1.) The Air Force Dover Mortuary Scandal: The federal government makes a solemn vow to care for its war dead, but this year we learned that didn’t happen — several hundred times. The Air Force admitted it shipped incinerated remains from at least 274 troops to a Virginia landfill between 2004 and 2008. It also said that the Dover mortuary misplaced a dead soldier’s ankle and another set of remains stored in a plastic bag. The Pentagon and Congress are investigating further, meaning more disturbing details may soon emerge. In a year when hundreds of thousands of troops followed their orders and came home from Iraq or deployed to Afghanistan, we learned that at least some military officials didn’t keep up their end of the bargain.
2.) Government Shutdown Averted: No matter what you think of the size and scope of the federal government, most would agree it’s supposed to keep functioning. This year, on four separate occasions, agencies faced the prospect of shutting down because Congress and the White House couldn’t agree on spending levels. The confusion spurred weeks of preparations that were eventually shelved and bad feelings among federal workers already enduring a two-year pay freeze.
3.) Federal Waste, Fraud and Abuse: The federal government made about $116 billion in improper payments in fiscal 2011 to fraudulent government contractors, lying federal beneficiaries and dead federal retirees, among others. The figures are down from an estimated $120 billion paid out mistakenly in fiscal 2010 — but it’s still a large sum. And in an era when Washington is looking to trim the federal fat, it would behoove the White House and Congress to get this figure down quickly.
4.) A n o-good, very bad year for the FAA: At least nine air traffic controllers admitted to falling asleep while on the job and one controller botched the landing of a flight carrying First Lady Michelle Obama. Thousands of agency personnel endured a weeks-long furlough while Congress bickered over the agency’s funding. To cap it off, Administrator Randy Babbitt resigned this month after being arrested for drunk driving. Better luck next year.
5.) TSA’s screening methods panned: The agency endured another year of criticism for its enhanced (some say invasive) security screening procedures. A national uproar ensued in April, when video surfaced of a TSA screener patting down a 6-year old girl passing through security at the New Orleans airport. Several TSA agents also made headlines for inappropriate behavior, including one who left a personal note in the luggage of a female passenger who had packed a sex toy.
6.) Fast and Furious: Two years ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began permitting small-time straw purchasers to pass firearms to middlemen, who trafficked the guns to Mexico. But the scandal erupted this year. As a result, ATF’s former acting director and top agency officials were reassigned and Arizona’s U.S. attorney resigned. Republican lawmakers want Attorney General Eric Holder to fire subordinates and have warned that impeachment is an option.
7.) The Justice Department’s Muffin Mess: A watchdog report said the department paid as much as $16 per muffin served at Washington conferences. But top officials and the Hilton Hotel chain disputed the findings. The department’s acting inspector general later revised the report, but said DOJ still paid hefty sums for lunches and dinners. But the myth of the $16 muffin was, well, widely consumed, and spoiled the original intent of the report — to identify alleged cases of questionable spending.
8.) Solyndra: Watchdogs agree that very little money from the economic stimulus program has been spent fraudulently. But stimulus critics have seized on the story of the now-bankrupt solar energy company and its politically-connected backers as evidence that the Obama administration’s push to stimulate the economy wasn’t worth it.
9.) Labor Secretary’s ode to American workers falls flat: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis meant well when she was asked by reporters about her snazzy government-issued hybrid SUV. She said the silver, lightweight Chevrolet Equinox was designed to “send a signal that we are for supporting our American workers, [and] American-made products.” But reporters soon discovered that General Motors assembles the vehicle at two manufacturing plants — in Canada. Demand is so high for the Equinox that GM is hiring more workers — in Canada. Even Solis’s aides privately admitted that the Obama administration’s point person on (American) job creation goofed, big time.
10.) USAJobs.gov Malfunctions: Cutting the unemployment rate may be a priority of the Obama administration, but the Office of Personnel Management didn’t help matters much. The agency relaunched the federal jobs site in October, but faced swift criticism from users who complained of slow loading times and misplaced résumés. The problems lingered for weeks. Perhaps federal job-seekers should turn instead to privately owned job sites that also post federal openings?
11.) OPM’s Snow Day Miscue: An early dismissal for federal workers in January tied up traffic for hours. But bad traffic in Washington is nothing new — no matter the weather. The incident forced OPM to revamp its inclement weather policy, meaning federal workers who don’t leave after a dismissal might have to shelter in place overnight. You’ve been warned.
Agree or disagree with the rankings? Sound off in the comments section below.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost
For more, check out The Post’s Best of 2011 for a deeper look at the biggest topics and trends of the year.