The new administrator of the General Services Administration said yesterday that he has halted all purchases of government office furniture -- amounting to $226 million a year -- because he is not convinced that government agencies use the furniture they already have.
Rowland G. Freeman III, a Navy admiral who took over the scandal-ridden agency July 2, said he will permit purchases only when agencies can document how much furniture they have on hand and begin repairing furniture before ordering new items. Freeman issued his directive on Tuesday.
Freeman's statement came as the Senate Govermental Affairs' federal spending practices subcommittee presented new evidence that government agencies, through GSA, continue to buy new furniture when they have plenty on hand.
Paul Granetto, a General Accounting Office auditor assigned to the sub-committee's staff, testified at yesterday's hearing that he saw 2,000 pieces of furniture stored in an Agriculture Department basement and $38,000 worth of new, largely unopened cartons of furniture in an Agriculture Department attic while the department continues to buy new furniture.
The first floor of another Agriculture building was crammed with furniture belonging to the Commerce and Interior departments, while Interior continues to order new furniture, he said.
GSA buys nearly 1 million new desks, chairs and file cabinets a year, even though government employment levels have remained relatively stable, Granetto said. Only 35.7 million in furniture is declared excess each year, he said, indicating that most of the $226 million in new furniture is purchased when it is not needed.
The Washington Post reported last month that the Agriculture Department, for reasons that are still unclear, was shipping hundreds of dollars of usable office furniture and equipment each day for burial in the District of Columbia's Lorton dump.
Much of the used furniture is grabbed by government employes or scavengers for their homes or is resold.
"We've not been able to determine just why the old, usable furniture is thrown away," Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), the chairman of the subcommittee, said. "Perhaps it's the whim of some bureaucrat who wants a newer desk to sit behind, so he simply takes advantage of lax purchasing practices and orders a new one."
Government regulations prohibit ordering new furniture unless it is needed.
Freeman said GSA has continued to buy about the same amount of office furniture each year simply because that amount was ordered in previous years. He said it is unclear how much furniture is really needed, since government agencies don't keep inventories of the furniture they have on hand.
"Until i have an adequate definition of what is the inventory and what is the need we won't buy," he said.
Freeman said his moratorium applies to all manufacturers and may be extended to other commodities purchased by GSA.
Freeman's order was immediately challenged in court by Art Metal-USA Inc., which supplies GSA with about three-quarters of its office furniture. iAll but $1.8 million of the $30.5 million in pending purchases affected by Freeman's order are from Art Metal.
Art Metal contended that the moratorium violates a court order barring GSA from discriminating against the company, according to Richard Q. Vawter, GSA's public information director. Art Metal obtained the order after GSA tried to prevent the company from doing business with the agency.
Chiles, however, reminded Freeman of previous testimony that as much as half of the furniture delivered by Art Metal was unusable and that Art Metal officials, when asked if they had bribed GSA inspectors who check the quality of the furniture, invoked Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
"Does GSA have to deal with a company that takes the Fifth Amendment?" Chiles asked. "I'm not satisfied that your (GSA's) general counsel has been moving on this," he said.
Chiles also chided Kurt W. Muellenberg, a former Justice Department prosecutor who became GSA's first inspector general last spring, for referring only 10 cases to Justice for possible prosecution. Only three of the cases involved GSA personnel.
Muellenberg said he only refers cases that have a chance of producing indictments. He acknowledged that the three GSA employes involved are low-level personnel.
Freeman, in his first full accounting of this first three months in office, said he found an agency without an understanding of its mission. Business was transacted on an "informal basis," there was no long-range planning, and employes had no way of measuring their performance, he said.
The moratorium on furniture purchases is the second to be imposed on GSA spending since the scandal involving corruption at the agency began to unfold more than a year ago. In March, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee froze all new GSA construction and leasing, affecting an estimated $1 billion in projects.
So far, 78 persons have been charged with crimes in connection with the GSA scandal, and 69 of those have pleaded guilty or been convicted, William S. Lynch, chief of the Justice Department's task force on GSA corruption, testified yesterday.