The government's accounting department, which gets all kinds of strange bills and expense accounts, has approved a most unusual request: It was for the purchase of 3 tons of rock that will be turned into pebble-size gifts to tourists at a national monument in New Mexico. Like many things the government does, this isn't as dumb as it sounds.
Arguing the rocky case, the National Park Service said the federal establishment had two choices. It could either collect the rocks -- part of an extinct volcano -- itself and turn them into souvenirs, or stand by and watch memento-collectors and rockhounds chip away at the Capulin Mountain National Monument.
That monument, for those not up on their volcano lore, is a giant, coneshaped cinder sticking up in New Mexico. Many years ago it was an active volcano. Visitors over the years have been carrying away pieces of the monument to prove to themselves and rock-loving friends they had been there.
In approving the expenditure -- mainly for preparation since the government already owns the rocks -- the hard-nosed General Accounting Office let it be known that it remains rock-like in opposition to silly expenditures.
Before it gave the National Park Service the approval, the GAO -- Congress's fiscal watchdog agency -- pointed out that it has turned down past requests to pay for candy garbage cans, key chains for VIPs and other non-essentials.
Regular readers of this column will recall the garbage can caper. It happened -- or almost happened -- when an Environmental Protection Agency official got what must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
At the time -- a national conference on disposal of solid wastes -- the EPA decided it would be cute to give out little garbage cans full of candy garbage sugar fish heads, beer cans and old shoes) to visitors to the EPA booth.The official bought the candy with his own cash, and asked for reimbursement later. To make a long story short, the GAO said government funds could not be used to give toy garbage cans to the public.
National Park Service lawyers were aware of the garbage can precedent. But they prevailed. They argued that there is a lot of difference between rocks and candy. (anyone who has tried to eat a rock would know what they were talking about).
The GAO, in language that would make lawyers F. Lee Bailey or Joseph Califano Jr. weep in admiration, agreed. "... we agree that the purchase of the lava rocks is an authorized expenditure," GAO wrote. "One of the purposes for which the appropriation is available is to conserve natural objects in the monument, and Park Service officials have made a reasonable finding that this purpose can be accomplished by providing samples of rocks to visitors to deter them from taking rocks from the monument." Which all goes to show the government can be reasonable when given good reason.
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Secretary: Public Defender Service has a GS 6 opening. Send form 171 to Rachel Cox, 451 Indiana Ave. NW, Zip 20001.
Jule M. Sugarman, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, is the dinner speaker at 6 p.m. tonight at the Personnel Management Association meeting at the Camp Springs Holiday Inn. This is the session canceled last week because of snow. Sugarman will talk about civil service reform. Call Ron Gabriel today at 566-0776 for reservations.