'THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT is always fair," a friend of mine, who had worked for many years in public service, once explained. "It's just fairer to some folks than others."
That seems to be the policy of the Veterans Administration. Consider two recent criminal investigations at the agency.
One involves an employe who has worked at the VA for 26 years and who recently was accused of stealing government property -- in this instance, four partially eaten pork chops that she had taken from a garbage can at the VA medical center where she worked. She wanted the meat for her dog.
The other case involves Veterans Administrator Robert P. Nimmo, who was accused of: using a chauffeur to drive him to work in violation of a 1981 law; leasing a larger car than allowed by federal guidelines; redecorating his office in violation of a presidential directive; and circumventing federal rules by sending his old furniture at VA to his daughter, who is a spokesman for the Commerce Department.
The pork chop caper began May 23, 1981, at a VA medical center in Salisbury, N.C., according to transcripts from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which was called in to resolve the dispute. The employe was apprehended by security guards while she was leaving the building, because she was carrying a plastic bag that contained the four pork chops.
In a single sweep, VA officials accused her of theft and fired her. The woman, who was a member of the American Federation of Government Employees, appealed that decision.
At the hearing, VA officials said the employe had to be punished. If she were not, other employes might intentionally discard good food so that they could retrieve it later. They claimed the woman's past record also warranted her dismissal. During the last 11 years of her 26-year employment, she had been reprimanded several times and suspended twice for arriving at work intoxicated.
The union admitted that the woman had a drinking problem, but explained that she was enrolled in a VA-approved treatment program. Her past alcohol problems were unrelated to the theft charge, they added.
The union called witnesses who confirmed that the pork chops had been in a garbage can when the woman retreived them. There was no evidence that she had intentionally thrown the meat away so that she could get it later. She also made no attempt to hide the pork chops when she walked by the guards, which she could have easily done by putting them in her purse, which they would not have checked.
VA officials insisted that the woman should have known better. Among other things, they accused her of being an unfit employe because she had violated VA Employe Letter 00-71-6, which said, in part, "You must avoid any action which might result in, or look as though you are: (1) Using public office for private gain."
No disciplinary hearing was held in the Nimmo case, nor was any mention of Employe Letter 00-71-6 made.
The director, who was nominated by President Reagan in July 1981, had asked the VA's inspector general to investigate him after a number of accusations about his conduct surfaced in the media.
The IG report was released last week by the VA, along with a letter from Nimmo which said that he did not realize he had done anything improper.
The IG report said Nimmo had been warned twice by the VA general counsel's office that using a government vehicle to commute to his home violated the law. Nimmo did not listen, the report said. Because his chauffeur did not keep a daily log book, the report said it is impossible to tell how many miles the director might have traveled illegally. But, based on the 493.5 hours of overtime that the government paid the chauffeur, it was fair to assume the costs were at least $6,441. As a footnote, the report, which made every effort to avoid saying Nimmo had violated any laws, suggested that Nimmo also may have acted improperly by having a "private" chauffeur who rarely drove for anyone else in the agency.
The report also said Nimmo should not have leased a 1982 Buick Electra Limited at $708.50 per month that was not fuel efficient, a decision he apparently made himself. (By comparison, the report said, a full-size Ford could have been leased for $175 per month and a Lincoln Mark VI could have been had for $242.)
It also said Nimmo had violated a directive, issued days after Reagan's inauguration, which prohibited agency heads from redecorating their offices. Nimmo spent $54,183 on renovations to his office and his aides' offices. The repairs were needlessly expensive and not done according to low-bid standards, the report said. In one instance, the VA wasted $4,630 by having tile floors replaced with better tile and then later covered with carpet.
Had the presidential directive not existed, the VA director still would have violated government regulations that apply to redecorating, the report said. A liberal reading of the law would have resulted in $5,386 of unauthorized expenses; a strict interpretation would have outlawed $19,168 of the repairs.
Finally, the IG's office said Nimmo had acted improperly when he commandeered his old office furniture for his daughter -- although, the report quickly pointed out, the switch did not cost the government any money.
The report did not mention previous incidents in which Nimmo's conduct had drawn criticism. At one point the former California legislator, a close friend of presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, was accused by Stars and Stripes of wasting $5,600 of taxpayers' money by commandeering a military aircraft to fly his aide-de-camp and himself home from Reno. He has earned the reputation as "the best-tanned member of the administraton" because of his proclivity for scheduling speaking appearances that coincide with opportunities to improve his golf game. When groundbreaking ceremonies for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial were held, Nimmo irritated many VA employes by refusing to allow them to take leave to attend the service. He, meanwhile, kept a golf date.
Nimmo served as his own judge and jury. He announced that he was reimbursing the government $6,411 for the cost of his driver's overtime. He also promised that he would get a more fuel-efficient car.
Meanwhile, the arbitrator in the pork chop case ruled Oct. 17 that the VA had reacted too harshly when it fired its employe. But, the arbitrator said, the woman had committed a "serious mistake" and deserved to be punished.
He rejected the union's offer that she simply be allowed to pay for the pork chops as past employes accused of stealing food had done. Instead, she was suspended for three weeks without pay.