CORRECTION: The original version of this article was accompanied by a photograph of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The photograph has been taken down because the person appearing in the photo was not one of the employees who received the payments in question.
Four high-ranking federal lab workers found a way to turn “per diem” funds for a temporary assignment into a steady flow of extra income — at taxpayers’ expense. The overpayments, discovered in an inspector general’s audit, boosted the annual pay of some of the employees by as much as $64,000.
The Department of Energy paid the four scientists roughly $1.8 million for daily lodging and “inconvenience” during assignments away from home. But these scientists were paid as if they were on temporary duty for up to 14 years — long after most had permanently relocated to job sites.
Princeton University, which the Energy Department pays to run its federal lab for fusion and plasma research, used taxpayer dollars to fund “per diem” payments for the employees’ lodging, as well as “premium” bonuses to supplement their salaries by an additional 12 percent. The extra money — which the university said was reviewed and approved by the Energy Department — was supposed to make up for the expense and difficulty of traveling to an assignment far from home.
Two of the Princeton lab employees worked on what the department considered a “temporary” travel detail for a scientific partnership at a General Atomics research facility in San Diego — one for 14 years and another for nine years. But both had long ago moved to the San Diego area.
Still, taxpayers spent more than $1 million in per diem payments to subsidize the living expenses of the two workers because their details were approved year after year. Taxpayers also provided the pair with $372,000 in “field service premiums,” a kind of bonus to compensate for the disruption caused by temporary, out-of-town duty. The office of Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman, the Energy Department’s watchdog, discovered the payments for the two workers last month and called them “unreasonable” and “questionable costs” in its public report, which was released late Friday.
When Friedman’s office alerted the department to the payments in April, top agency managers reviewed the books for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of 10 scientific research laboratories that private contractors run at government expense. The Princeton lab’s annual budget is $80 million, which is provided by the Energy Department. The department then discovered two additional federally paid lab employees who were overpaid based on the same mistakes.
One had received $400,000 in per diem and bonus payments after being classified as “on travel,” beginning in 2002, to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Another had been on “extended travel” to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee since 2007 and had been paid $95,000 in lodging reimbursements, according to information provided by a person briefed on the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a pending investigation.