Defense finance workers haunted by financial histories

Thursday, July 8, 2010

If you're a government employee who is repeatedly in financial trouble, you may also be in deep trouble with Uncle Sam.

At least 33 Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) employees found that out the hard way. They have been notified that they will be terminated at the end of the month.

The workers got the bad news after background checks were run on more than 16,500 agency employees. The Pentagon said the employees' financial histories was one of 13 factors considered when officials decided who would be let go. But that's not what a union leader said he was told.

"They told us it was strictly an outside financial situation" that led to the firings, said Don Hale, chairman of the American Federation of Government Employees' conference of Defense Department locals.

He said the workers were not fired because they had engaged in fraudulent activities but because they had fallen on hard times, perhaps through no fault of their own.

"We're talking about folks who may have had a sick child and decided to seek help for that child instead of making a car payment," said Hale, who also is president of the AFGE local at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

But Marilee Fitzgerald, until recently the acting defense undersecretary for civilian personnel policy, said Hale must have misunderstood what she told him during a meeting. The fired employees had a history of financial trouble, not just one incident, said Fitzgerald, now acting education activity director for the department.

The other 12 factors were allegiance to the United States, foreign influence, foreign preference, sexual behavior, personal conduct, alcohol consumption, drug involvement, psychological conditions, criminal conduct, handling protected information, outside activities and use of information technology systems.

Thirty-nine employees were reviewed as a result of the background checks. Twenty-one are being terminated; 12 will be if they lose their appeals; four won their appeals and are being returned to duty; and two are seeking employment outside DFAS, according to Fitzgerald.

She said employees' financial histories are relevant to their work in a financial institution, such as DFAS, because a poor history may indicate a bad risk. DFAS employees deal with pay records and personal information, such as the Social Security numbers, of other workers.

A matter of opinion

Transportation Security Administration employees are capable of dealing with controversial opinions after all.

On Friday, the beginning of the nation's weekend birthday celebration, TSA issued what seems like a distinctly un-American directive. It said that "beginning July 1, 2010, TSA began blocking access to websites in categories including, but not limited to . . . Controversial opinion."

Union leaders, who have been seeking collective bargaining rights for transportation security officers, immediately asked whether advocacy of those rights would be considered "controversial."

"We definitely thought that was a ludicrous policy because what is controversial often is in the eye of the beholder," AFGE attorney Chad Harris said.

Wiser heads prevailed at TSA, which issued a different notice Tuesday. It said controversial opinions would not be blocked.

TSA now says: "Our intent is not, and never has been, to limit your ability to access or share 'controversial opinions.' "

Contracting slowdown

Not too long ago, which means through the end of the Bush administration, the rate at which Uncle Sam contracted out work to companies was growing by leaps and bounds. President Obama promised to put on the brakes, and figures released Wednesday indicate that he has had some success.

Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said contracts awarded without competition dropped by 10 percent during the first half of fiscal 2010, compared with the same period last year. Awards of contracts that generated only one bid also dropped, by 2 percent.

"To put this into perspective, between FY 2000 and FY 2008, total spending on contracts awarded without competition increased significantly from $73 billion to $173 billion," Orszag said Wednesday on his blog.

"Dollars obligated under contracts that were open to competition, but generated only one bid, also increased dramatically from $14 billion in FY 2000 to $ 67 billion in FY 2008. We not only halted this increase, but actually reduced the rate of growth in these wasteful contracts."

Contracts that pay companies on a cost-reimbursement basis, rather than a fixed price, declined by 6 percent, and so-called time-and-materials/labor-hour contracts fell by 7 percent, Orszag said.

"Practically, these steps are saving taxpayer dollars," he said.

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