Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland yesterday ordered an investigation into his department's disposal of surplus office equipment -- a system some employes charge has funneled hundreds of usable desks and typewriters to the Dempster Dumpster.
Bergland named department inspector general Thomas F. McBride to work with Kurt Muellenberg, his counterpart in the General Services Administration, to determine if more or tighter regulations are needed to keep worthwhile goods out of the trash.
The secretary's directive follows a Washington Post report that the Agriculture Department for the past five years has been sending such items as slightly scuffed swivel chairs and workable adding machines to the District of Columbia's sanitary landfill near Lorton, Va.
Bergland said if more widespread problems are indicated, the study could be extended to property disposition practices in other federal agencies.
Joan S. Wallace, assistant secretary for administration, said departmental policy "requires that property that cannot be used within a particular office be sent to the excess property pool for use by others within the department."
If the equipment cannot be used within the department, she said, the "GSA requires that it be notified so that the items may be used by other federal offices, donated to state agencies or sold to the public."
If no other department wants the items, she said, the department must notify GSA again and await instructions on the disposition of each item.
However, interviews with present and former employes of the department have disclosed that hundreds of dollars worth surplus goods are taken daily from subbasement storerooms in the Agriculture building and loaded into dumpsters to be trucked off to her Lorton landfill.
"When an office has, say, an extra desk," said one Agriculture employe, "the people in the office just write 'surplus' on it and shove it out in the hall. It stays there for a week or so, and if nobody picks it up, it is carted downstairs and either stored or thrown away.
"I have furnished a whole home office out of things I have gotten in the dumpster," he said. "And it's not junk. . .I have some beautiful mahogany bookcases and a chair that's got to be worth over $100."
But Wallace Fox, the bureau chief of the department's Office of Supply and Motor Vehicles, said, "People are not supposed to be putting these things in the dumpster. . .If the procedures were followed, the wrong things wouldn't be thrown away."
Fox said another problem his office has in controlling disposal of surplus is that no physical records inventory are kept on the items in the basement.
The only records he has, he said, are the "surplus declaration slips" people send to his office when they are following the proper procedures. These he says, are received "in the area of about 10 a day," some of which report more than one surplus item.
Though Fox said Tuesday he had no knowledge of any usable furniture or equipment ever discarded, he said yesterday that "in the past, I received calls once or twice that I can remember" that something usable was in the dumpster. "If we found it was usable we took it out."
However, Carla Wagner, a secretary in the Division of Packers and Stockyards in the Office of the General Counsel, said:
"We tried to let the right people know that all this good stuff was being tossed away, but no one seemed to listen. . .and when they didn't, we just went down and took it out ourselves.
Wagner said she has helped retreive at least a dozen office chairs, tables, desks and an adding machine over the last several years.
Though Fox said he periodically sends out circulars reminding Agriculture employes of property management regulations, he said it is up to individual agency heads, not himself, to see that they're carried out.