Democracy Dies in Darkness

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A high-ranking Obama Commerce Dept. official commuted by taxi — and billed the government

January 11, 2018 at 12:12 PM

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. (Alex Brandon/AP)

This post has been updated.

Vikrum Aiyer liked to commute to his government job by taxi.

On at least 130 occasions over two years — the majority during a four-month stretch in 2016 — the then-chief of staff for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office called a taxi to pick him up near his home in the District. He was chauffeured across the Potomac River 10 miles or so to the agency’s headquarters in downtown Alexandria.

And then, according to a report released Tuesday by the inspector general for the Commerce Department and people familiar with the investigation, Aiyer billed the government for each ride.

To escape notice, Aiyer impersonated current and former high-level agency officials, writing their names on cab receipts and vouchers he submitted to the taxi company, which then billed the government, investigators found.

One of those officials was the Patent and Trademark Office’s then-communications director, whose supervisors eventually confronted him on his apparent taxi usage. In response, he noted that he regularly drove to work and his car was in the agency’s parking garage.

Aiyer, now a vice president for public policy and strategic communications at a San Francisco company, did not initially respond to multiple requests for comment. On Thursday, he released a statement saying he had a “misunderstanding of agency taxi rules.”

He said he offered to repay the patent office, adding that he stands “by that offer to actively work with an agency that I deeply respect to resolve this matter.” An agency spokesman declined to comment.

When investigators interviewed Aiyer in December 2016, he did not deny their findings, the report said. He resigned with thousands of other Obama political appointees just before Donald Trump took office.

Aiyer’s unauthorized rides apparently went unnoticed for at least two years by budget officials who reviewed the invoices from Alexandria Yellow Cab, which has a contract to provide authorized taxi services for agency officials. The patent office paid the taxi company more than $4,000 for Aiyer’s rides, the report says.

“The evidence . . . establishes that Political Appointee knowingly used the Agency’s Cab Company account for impermissible purposes on a routine basis and that he took steps to conceal his unauthorized use of this account by providing false names and false location
information,” investigators for Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson wrote.

The cab rides — and other abuses, including of his government-issued credit card — violated federal policy prohibiting government employees from commuting from their home to the office at government expense. Aiyer, who also served as a senior adviser on technology policy in the Obama White House and worked at one point for former District mayor Adrian Fenty, is not named in the report, which also does not identify in what Commerce Department division he worked. Current and former government officials identified Aiyer as the subject of the investigation.

As chief of staff, Aiyer helped manage a $3.4 billion budget in support of 13,000 employees at the Patent and Trademark Office.

A spokesman for the office declined to comment, referring a request to the Commerce Department, its parent agency. A department spokesman also declined to comment, referring questions to the inspector general’s office.

A spokesman for Gustafson declined to say why the office waited a year to release its report.

Aiyer told investigators that taking taxis to work on the government’s dime was standard practice for officials at his level, naming several he said had told him they did the same.

“Political Appointee said he thought it was permissible to provide incorrect trip origin or destination information because this was the ‘protocol that was imparted to [him] by [his] bosses at the time,’ and ‘because this is how . . . prior bosses approach[ed] it,’ ” investigators wrote. However, those officials told the inspector general’s office they had not given them those assurances.

For most of the cab rides, Aiyer was picked up on a street corner a tenth of a mile from his home, according to the report. But he wrote on the invoice that he was leaving from Commerce Department headquarters in downtown Washington.

He once billed the government for a $54 taxi ride from his home to the Alexandria office on a Saturday, then $36.20 for a return trip that evening after a party, investigators found, concluding that he “used the Agency’s Cab Company account to facilitate his weekend social activity in this particular instance, but he made it appear otherwise when arranging for these cabs.”

Patrick Ross, the patent office’s former chief communications officer, said in an interview that all political appointees in the Obama administration understood that “ethics and personal responsibility were paramount in our daily service to the nation.”

“That’s why I was shocked and concerned when, as the individual identified as ‘Agency Official A’ in the report, I was presented in early 2016 with a lengthy list of cab rides in my name that I had never taken,” Ross said. “It was clear to me that someone at the agency was using my name, and putting my personal credibility at risk, to engage in actions that the individual knew was unethical and a violation of agency policy.”

Aiyer also racked up $15,000 in expenses on his government-issued credit card, charging for food and drink at local bars, clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners and at least one liquor store, the report said. Investigators said he personally paid off the expenses.

The report says he also misstated his educational credentials on résumés he submitted to the Obama administration, claiming to have a postgraduate degree that he did not receive.

Read more:

Globetrotting Obama official traveled in luxury. Taxpayers footed the bill.

Clash over patent-office fraud a sign of what’s to come for federal workers

He billed the government for four months of work he never did — and his teleworking boss never noticed


Lisa Rein covers federal agencies and the management of government in the Trump adminstration. At The Washington Post, she has written about the federal workforce; state politics and government in Annapolis, and in Richmond; local government in Fairfax County, Va. and the redevelopment of Washington and its neighborhoods.

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