Following an exhaustive, six-week study, federal investigators have concluded that 34 pieces of government furniture dumped, Oct. 17 in the Montgomery County landfill "met all the technical requirements for disposal as scrap."
At the same time, the investigators' 65-page report quotes witnesses to the dumping, who testified that the furniture thrown away was "usable," or in some cases, "in perfect condition."
Nevertheless, the team from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare stood fast. One landfill employe, they said, "unaware of government regulations as to the serviceability or salvageability of furniture, mistakenly evaluated a chair as being in 'good' condition, using his own personal criteria."
The furnituure was thrown out by the Public Health Service, HEW concluded, "in accordance with standard operating procedures in effect . . . at the time."
The government contends that furniture can be thrown away only when it is beyond cost-effective repair, or the report said, if the original cost of the furniture is less than $300, in which case "it is considered non-accountable."
But Post investigations have disclosed that furniture often is thrown away because government agencies lack the time, facilities or space to repair -- or even store - all the "excess" furniture they receive.
Furthermore, some government employes say they have furnished home offices entirely with furniturue retrieved from federal dumpsters. One surplus store owner in Woodbridge says he does a thriving business in government desks and chairs salvaged from area landfills by truck drivers.
The HEW investigation began Oct. 18 when The Washington Post reported a blue-and-yellow truck had dropped, on the day before, a load of government-issue desks, chairs, and conference tables in the Montgomery County dump.
Before that news story, government workers and landfill employes had charged that many government agencies -- including the departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development and the Quartermaster Corps regularly sent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of usable office furniture and equipment for burial in Washington-area dumps over the past several years.
Investigations by the General Services Administration and the Department of Agriculture are continuing.
After acting HEW Inspector General Richard B. Lowe III ordered an investigation into the Montgomery County dumping incident, 10 special agents took testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses to determine whether federal disposal regulations had been followed.
HEW investigators reported that on Oct. 12 Charles A. Knapp, public Health Service property management officer, wrote a memorandum, stating that 34 pieces of wooden furniture should be disposed of because they were, the report said, "unsalvageable scrap and of no commercial value."
On Oct. 15, Knapp's supervisor, Murry Boyd, concurred with Knapp's conclusions and signed the memo. The following day, Boyd's supervisor, Ralph V. McComb, did likewise.
On Oct. 17, Knapp and two laborers loaded the "scrap" furniture onto a government truck and took it to the landfill for disposal.
Arriving at 8:30 a.m. the two workmen with Knapp began unloading the truck, and Wayne Riner, a landfill employe, picked up a chair and began to walk away with it.
Knapp "told me I could not take it," Riner testified. "I told him I just wanted the chair for a few minutes so I could sit down . . . The chair seemed to be in pretty good condition to me."
HEW's report concluded that Riner "mistakenly evaluated a chair as being in 'good' condition, using his own personal criteria."
After Riner walked away from the furniture, Knapp observed Thomas Johnson, truck driver for De Marne and Day Inc. standing near the furniture that had just been unloaded.
"I thought the furniture looked real nice," Johnson told HEW special agents. Some of the furniture, he said, was "slightly damaged. Several of them had wheels missing. There were also three or four straight back chairs and, except for one, they were damaged in some way -- leg separated from frame or arm missing."
The HEW report concluded that Johnson's description of the furniture as "'new, good' was solely his personal evaluation, which would differ with normal standard appraisal of said furniture and more definitely with the GSA standards and regulations."
James Brown, another landfill employe, testified that the "furniture that was unloaded from the truck was all usable furniture. There were clothes trees that were usable . . . There were tables which were usable, and they all had legs on them when they were off-loaded from the truck.
"The furniture which was being dumped was better than anything that they have to use in the dump office," Brown told an HEW investigator.
HEW didn't go for that one either.
"James Brown's statement," they said, "is contradictory to the evidence and statements of other witnesses and is therefore suspect as to credibility."
Knapp testified that on the morning of the 17th he had "scheduled the day's work objectives, which included the transporting of wood scraps to the Montgomery landfill . . .
"During the unloading," he recalled, "a worker for the landfill asked if a continued, "a person approached the chair was available for him to sit in. I explained that chairs were no good for sitting purposes as being in irreparable condition. . .
"Nearing or immediately after the completion of the unloading," Knapp continued, "a person approached the pile and began to observe the scraps. He began to pick up a chair that was busted with parts missing. The unidentified person made some statement that he could use this item, but when I denied him permission to remove this, he made another statement that poor people should be able to have these or something in near context.
"I then stated in a joking manner, in hopes to relieve the dissappointment of the man, we both may be poor if I allowed you -- in meaning that I felt my disregard of my interpretation of regulations could result in trouble and also I did not and do not intend to intentionally disregard these; he then left.
"This unusual incident created a second thought within me, and when I returned to the warehouse, I told Mr. Murry Boyd, my supervisor, of this trip and its unusual events," Knapp testified.