By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008
For nearly five years, FBI leaders encouraged employees on temporary assignment in Iraq to bill an average of $45,000 in overtime and extra pay by routinely claiming to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, even when some of that time was spent eating, exercising, watching movies or attending cocktail parties, the Justice Department inspector general reported yesterday.
FBI counterterrorism division managers condoned a time-billing practice under which 1,150 employees between 2003 and 2007 earned about $71,000 during a typical 90-day tour -- nearly triple the typical worker's salary, Inspector General Glenn Fine reported.
The practice violated federal law and regulations and accounted for at least $7.8 million to the $99 million taxpayer cost of the FBI efforts.
The FBI changed the overtime policy in 2008 while the investigation was underway. Using lower claims submitted by workers this year as a guide, the inspector general conservatively estimated that between 2003 and 2007, the typical employee earned about $5,594 per tour in unwarranted payments.
"We found that, on the whole, few if any employees worked exactly 16 hours a day, every day, for 90 days straight, within the meaning of the term 'work' as it is used in applicable regulations and policies," Fine's office concluded.
Several FBI employees claimed that time spent at a weekly, colleague-hosted "cocktail party was 'work' because it was a 'liaison' effort" to employees who attended from other government agencies, the report noted.
Others washed clothes during working hours. One employee defending the practice, saying, "When you're in that environment, anything you do to survive is work for the FBI."
FBI Assistant Director John Miller acknowledged that FBI headquarters management "allowed a flawed system to develop and remain in place too long."
In a statement, Miller said FBI managers early on tried to adapt normal pay practices to "unprecedented wartime assignments" for FBI personnel who were living with sniper attacks, mortar fire and roadside bombs, and employees followed a pay and overtime policy "they were told to use."
However, Miller added, "A system that both fairly recognized employees and complied with pay statutes and other personnel regulations should have been put in place but wasn't."
FBI employees sent to Iraq helped investigate Saddam Hussein and his associates, interrogated detainees at Abu Ghraib and other facilities and collected and analyzed evidence to protect U.S. targets against terrorism. They also aided Iraqi authorities investigating bombings and other crimes, the report said.
T.J. Harrington, then deputy assistant director of the counterterrorism division, said the pay was justified because agents were constantly on call, had no freedom to use off-time and exercised to maintain fitness and relieve stress, the report stated. Generous pay was needed to attract volunteers for dangerous and uncomfortable duty, he said.
The report said Harrington and six counterterrorism division assistant directors since 2003 were "ultimately responsible" for extending the time policy to all FBI employees in Iraq. But the review did not determine who was responsible for failing to meet federal law and regulations by setting schedules, keeping records and training employees.
The inspector general found no evidence that counterterrorism division managers consulted with the FBI general counsel's office, which the report called "inexplicable."
The inspector general disclosed similar problems with FBI employees in Afghanistan and other Justice Department personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service.