Labor Department PR chief: Wasteful spender or promoting mission?

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The House’s top Republican watchdog this week ordered the Labor Department to provide records on “mismanagement and wasteful spending practices” in the Office of Public Affairs, whose director has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the agency and, critics say, himself.

Labor officials defend the spending authorized by public affairs chief Carl Fillichio as a strategy to inform the public of the agency’s mission and boost employee morale.

But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called it “frivolous” and a “misuse of agency resources.”

“The DOL Office of Public Affairs frivolously spends taxpayer dollars on unnecessary items,” Issa wrote in an Aug. 25 letter to Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, demanding that the agency turn over documents showing planning and spending on elevator posters, an agency book club and internal magazine and numerous public relations contests Fillichio entered — and award ceremonies he attended — since 2009.


Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. (AP/Molly Riley)

Issa cited more than $600,000 in spending by the public affairs office in recent years on elevator posters commemorating the Labor Department’s achievements, public relations contests and more than $100,000 to promote a book club.

Issa also criticized the use of taxpayer money to produce an internal magazine commemorating former Labor secretary Frances Perkins, travel by Fillichio to an awards ceremony in New York and the hiring of a Washington Nationals mascot for an agency event.

Fillichio did not return a phone call seeking comment.

A senior executive who held the same position under the previous Labor secretary, Hilda Solis, Fillichio is now senior adviser for public affairs and communications under Perez, overseeing the agency’s media and public affairs efforts, social and digital media, internal communications and Web site.

Labor Department spokesman Stephen Barr, in a statement, called the agency “responsible stewards of public funds.”

“We inform the public of our important mission and engage and educate our employees in creative, effective and appropriate ways,” Barr wrote. “Our internal communications efforts make a difference in employee satisfaction, retention and most importantly, performance.  Better performance from our employees translates into better value for the public.”

Issa began investigating the public affairs operation after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wrote to the agency’s inspector general last February, asking him to look into the same issues, in addition to contracting “irregularities.” Issa’s probe was first reported by the Hill.

As a result of Coburn’s allegations, Inspector General Scott S. Dahl  is conducting an audit of an agency contract, said an official with knowledge of the probe who was not authorized to speak publicly. It was unclear which contract is under review.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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