Tons of unused metal office furniture bought by the General Services Administration for federal agencies lies crushed, damaged, run over, rained on and forgotten in a warehouse the size of several airplane hangars east of Baltimore.
The warehouse, GSA's Supply Distribution Facility at Middle River, Md, is where GSA stores new office furniture until it is shipped on to government agencies. Most of the furniture comes in cartons from Art Metal-USA Inc. of Newark, N.J., which produces three-quarters of the metal office furniture bought by GSA.
A Washington Post reporter and photographer touring the 600,000 square-foot warehouse found:
Boxes of office furniture that is marked "fragile" piled one on top of each other, as many as 18 layers high in the five-story-tall warehouse, crushing furniture on the bottom.
Dust-covered furniture shipped by Art Metal more than three years ago lies scattered throughout the warehouse, apparently forgotten, at a time when GSA is spending $25 million a year to buy new furniture from Art Metal.
Furniture is not inspected when it arrives, with the result that Art Metal often claims that is not responsible for faulty or damaged merchandise. When 1,650 Art Metal filing cabinets were inspected recently following a complaint, 500 were found to have locks that did not work.
An entire section of the warehouse is devoted to furniture damaged by water leaks from the roof of the warehouse or dented when fork lift trucks, hitting bumps in the warehouse floor, drop the furniture.
Conditions at the giant Middle River warehouse were first called to the attention of GSA Administrator Jay Solomon by Walter Kallaur, whom Solomon recently named to head GSA's regional office in Washington. Solomon dispatched two aides, Robert Rogers and Peter Lee, to look at the facility themselves, and they reported that it is a small scandal.
Visitors to the covernous warehouse are required to check in with an armed guard, who issues passes that must be displayed in cars and worn at all times. Cameras are permitted only with special approval.
"This is damaged furniture that was hit by a fork lift truck or returned from an agency" because it was defective, William C. Smith, who is in charge of quality control in GSA warehouses, explained as he pointed to a pile of furniture in burst cartons covered with cobwebs.
Referring to furniture damaged by water leaks, W. J. McCray, manager of the warehouse, said, "The roof has been leaking for all the six years since I've been here. We've complained, and GSA says it doesn't have the money." He said a contract recently was awarded to repair the roof.
Smith also said he has complained that the warehouse stacks furniture many layers high even though the products can withstand the weight of only one layer. "The depot stacks it as it wants to," he said.
Since GSA has agreed with Art Metal to accept its merchandise without inspecting it, Smith said his role is limited to examining products only when GSA asks him to do so.
In the past year, he said, Art Metal has sent special crews to repair 225 clothing wardrobes that came without pins in the door hinges, missing shelves and defective paint jobs. He said the firm also required 500 file cabinets with broken locks and another 360 cabinets with drawers that did not close.
Before that, Smith said, GSA contracting officers had maintained that GSA could not require Art Metal to fix its own furniture. "Before, we would find a defective Art Metal shipment and we sent the results to Washington. Usually, they would say we had no recourse," Smith said. "Now, we're coming to the point where we identify the causes and usually have them repair it or we repair it.
"Some of the Art Metal furniture has been here since 1975, when I got here," Smith said. He said a few months ago to try to find out why the unused furniture is still at the warehouse.
An interview with Smith in his office at the GSA warehouse was conducted over the progressively louder snoring of an employe hired by GSA under a special contract who had been asleep at his desk since the interview began. He was identified as a dispatcher of warehouse trucks.
Investigators from the Senate Governmental Affairs' federal spending practices subcommittee, headed by Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), are scheduled to travel to Newark, N.J., soon to inspect Art Metal's plant. The company's office furniture has been the subject of complaints by federal agencies for years.
"Art Metal furniture was the worst thing you ever saw," said William Donovan, who inspected the furniture for the Internal Revenue Service during the 1960s. "It came with the tops off, the metal was flimsy, and the drawers wouldn't fit. We complained endlessly and nothing happened."
Art Metal, which is owned principally by its two officers, Philip J. Kurens and Irving Cooperstein, has said the complaints cover only a fraction of the one million pieces of furniture shipped by the company to GSA in the past five years alone. The company has said it will repair or replace any item that is found to be faulty because of its own negligence.
The Washington Post reported in July that GSA has continued to buy from Art Metal despite complaints that its products often are defective.
A retired GSA official, Bernard H. Martin, who was in charge of writing specifications for furniture to be purchased, said that Art Metal often was able to win GSA contract's because it "would bid low and then get the specifications changed" after the contract was signed. The result, he said. was that Art Metal supplied different products from what other manufacturers had bid on.
Arthur S. Lowell, who represents Art Metal in its dealings with GSA, attributed many of the complaints to resentment by GSA employes about his close relationship with former GSA administrator Arthur F. Sampson, whom he now employs in private business.
GSA and Justice Department investigators have been probing Art Metal contracts and the relationships among Lowell, Sampson, and others. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission has begun an investigation to determine whether Art Metal, whose common stock is publicly traded, has disclosed all matters that might be relevant to investors when they purchase the firm's stock.
After Solomon attempted in August to bar Art Metal from winning a new $9.4 million contract to supply GSA with filing cabinets, a federal judge here ruled that the agency had acted illegally.
GSA is now considering whether to buy commercially available furniture rather than issuing specifications on what types of furniture it wants.
The investigation of Art Metal is one of a number being conducted by federal investigators into almost every facet of GSA's operations, from its disposing of strategic stockpile materials and hiring of computer consultants to purchasing gasoline and auto tires with oil company credit cards.
In the two major investigations, GSA employes have been found to have certified that building repairs or office supplies were provided when they were not; in return for millions of dollars in cash and other forms of bribes.