The Agriculture Department, for reasons that no one seems able to explain, each day ships off hundreds of dollars worth of usable office furniture and equipment for burial in the District of Columbia's Lorton dump.
Employes in the department's South Building say that nearly every day for at least four years, a Shayne Brothers refuse removal truck has pulled up to the dumpster behind their building and hauled away mass quantities of desks, chairs, room dividers, typewriters and lumber.
"One of our attorneys, Jim Brennan, went down and got an adding machine they were throwing away. We're still using it," said Carla Wagner, a secretary in the Divsion of Packers and Stockyards of the Office of the General Counsel.
"The phone books they were throwing away one time were newer than the ones we have in the office," she said.
"If there's something good that's getting into the dumpster, I don't know where it's coming from," said Wallace Fox, who, as branch chief for the Agriculture Department's Office of Supply and Motor Vehicles, is charged with disposition of excess department property.
"Besides," he said, "we don't control the dumpsters. The General Services Administration does."
A spokesman at GSA's Supply Service said he did not know anything about the furniture or the dumpsters.
As for the Shayne Brothers, the refuse removal firm from Temple Hills, Md., that GSA contracts with to empty the dumpsters, one spokesman put it simply: "Our business is picking up trash and taking it to the Lorton landfill [in Fairfax County].We don't care what's in there. We're not in the salvage business."
No matter who controls the dumpsters or the trash inside of them, Wagner, who works in the South Building, said there is, mixed in with reams of paper, empty soda bottles, and assorted bureaucratic waste, "all kinds of furniture that is still very good . . . stuff that can be used straight out of the trash."
Several months ago, she said, after waiting months for a shipment of much-needed office chairs to arrive, she spied "dozens of nearly new chairs in the dumpster.
"I went down there, climbed into the dumpster and retrieved 12 of them. Then I carried them one by one up the steps and into our office. There wasn't a thing wrong with them.
"The other day there were over 20 room dividers out there. We had been pricing them, so I know they cost more than $100 apiece . . . I've seen conference tables, typing stands, desks, adding machines, typewriters, couches . . . you wouldn't believe it."
A reporter watched the Agriculture Department dumpsters yesterday in Court 4 off C street SW between 12th and 14th streets.
Between 10 am and 2:30 pm yesterday, workmen loaded more than 200 new still-wrapped District of Columbia telephone books, two-office chairs, one desk and several file cabinets into one of the 15-by-30-foot dumpsters.
When asked if these items were typical of Agriculture's dumpster fare, a watchman said, "I don't know anything about it . . . I don't know a thing."
"There's always lumber out there," Wagner said. "My boss said he could build a house with all the wood they've thrown out."
"I used to just go there and retrieve furniture from the dumpster. I got some nice stuff, and I still have some," said Abigail Havens, a confidential assistant to former Agriculture General Counsel -- now president assistant -- Sara Weddington.
"You might have trouble getting people over at Agriculture to tell you about it on the record, but they're definitely throwing lots of good things away," she said.
Fox said that normally, any furniture or materials that a particular agency or office no longer needs goes to his department where it is declared "excess property." It is then listed in GSA's excess property catalog for sale to other government agencies.
"Anything that GSA can't sell to a legitimate state or federal agency or auction off in monthly public sales, or anything that GSA deems beyond repair, is then destroyed," said Fox. "But that happens only occasionally."
Wagner said that in practice, "what happens is, people send things that they don't want down to 'surplus.' We have a sub-basement that's already full of furniture, and it overflows into the halls. When the halls are full, they just throw it away."
Wagner said she and Havens have first went down to the dumpster, several workers on the loading dock said they couldn't retrieve any of the furniture or equipment. Finally, said Wagner, Havens "told them she was a representative of the general counsel, so they let her take what she wanted back to the building."
Wagner said she and Havens had told others about the Agriculture Department throwaways, and have tried unsuccessfully to find out why they occurred.
Havens denied ever saying anything to Weddington about the practice. When asked why, she said "I guess I backed into that, didn't I? No answer."
"Sometimes," said Fox, "things will be discarded that will appear, on the surface, to be in perfect condition. But if you look closer, you will see that a desk was burnt on one side, or that its drawers are unrepairable. A chair may look all right, but if you sit on it, you will find that the spring mechanism is messed up and it won't support your weight.
"Other than that, we don't throw away anything that would be economical to repair. I have no idea where this stuff could have come from," Fox said.