The first call came six minutes after Les Krings began his two-hour shift answering the General Accounting Office's national fraud hotline.
The caller, a woman in the Midwest, said a relative should be arrested for collecting Social Security disability benefits while holding a full-time job.
"She decided to call because she was tired of hearing her brother-in-law brag about how much jewelry he could buy his wife with the benefit checks," said Krings, a GS12 who takes a break once a month from other auditing assignments to answer the hotline telephone.
During the next hour he received three more calls. Two callers wanted to know what the GAO had done with information they had already phoned in. The third, an Ohio man, complained that he had had to discuss "extremely personal matters" in a crowded room when he had applied for free legal aid recently.
"Sometimes," Krings said, "we play the role of a psychiatrist."
Since Jan. 18, 1979, GAO employes have received more than 41,000 tips from the public on their phone line. Some of the calls, particularly those left overnight on the agency's three answering machines, can cause them to shudder -- such as the caller who left a 90-minute diatribe against the government, complete with expletives.
But there have been some gems, according to Gary Carbone, the GS14 who oversees the project. Based on GAO hotline tips:
The General Services Administration discovered that it had wasted $330,000 by renting 18,000 feet of office space in New York City that went unused for nearly two years. It canceled the lease.
Two University of Wisconsin professors were convicted of misusing $160,000 in federal grant money and extorting an undisclosed sum from their students. Both recently were sentenced to three years in prison.
A New Jersey prison superintendent and key aides were forced to resign after they were linked to a parole-selling scheme.
The hotline was the brainchild of Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the GAO. The project, budgeted at $500,000 for fiscal 1982, has the equivalent of four full-time employes of its own and draws on another 32 employes from the fraud prevention and audit oversight section at GAO to answer the phones.
Seventeen other federal agencies also have started hotlines. Most of their callers are government employes reporting waste, fraud and mismanagement.
At the GAO, however, 70 percent of the tips come from the public. That means it gets more calls than does any other agency, averaging 70 per day. But many of the tips cannot be followed up, Carbone said, because tipsters often are not sure which federal agency they are talking about -- or even if federal funds are involved.
A common tip, Carbone said, is what hotline staffers call the "woodchopper" -- a complaint that a neighbor, co-worker, friend or relative is receiving disability payments yet is strong enough to mow the lawn or chop wood. Such tips are hard to check out unless the caller knows what kind of federal benefit the person is receiving. Often there is a valid explanation for what the tipster saw, Carbone said, but some of the tips have led to convictions.
Carbone said his office has never done a complete statistical survey of its hotline calls. "They come in so fast we just haven't had time," he said. But earlier this year Carbone examined the 41,000 calls the agency has received during office hours since the hotline began.
The most common tip (1,259 of those tallied) involved Social Security benefits, followed by allegations of tax cheating and welfare and food stamp fraud.
Carbone said 11,676 tips had enough information and appeared serious enough to investigate. After additional screening, the GAO pared those to 7,481 tips -- 706 alleging "mismanagement" and 5,775 intentional wrongdoing.
The tips were forwarded to the inspector general at the appropriate agency, but Carbone said the GAO has never done a study of what happened to them after that. The GAO asks the IGs to respond within 60 days, but usually the IG simply says the complaint is still being investigated.
It now takes the GAO 90 days to review a tip and then forward it to a federal agency, Carbone said, unless the accusation involves a high-ranking official or a contract that is about to be signed. Then the time is cut to a week.
In rare instances a tipster will try to misuse the hotline, Carbone said. A caller will accuse a federal employe of wrongdoing, then call his boss or a local reporter and tell them the employe is being "investigated by the GAO."
Krings said his favorite hotline story is about a woman who tried to turn in her daughter for collecting more food stamps than she deserved.
The woman, Krings said, said the daughter had stopped giving her a percentage of the stamps. Before she hung up, she asked if she would get a reward.