An investigation by the inspector general of the General Services Administration found rampant abuse of an employee awards program of the agency’s Pacific Rim region, the same region that has come under fire for spending more than $800,000 on a Las Vegas training conference for 300 employees.
The report on the “Hats Off” employee recognition program, obtained by The Washington Post, found theft, numerous violations of agency directives and misuse of government purchasing cards in the maintenance of the awards program.
The inspector general found “significant control weaknesses in the Hats Off Program.”
The report found that in fiscal year 2009, Pacific Rim employees received $256 in awards and Public Buildings Service employees in the region averaged $328.
The budget for the program had risen dramatically in recent years. In 2008, employees at the Pacific Rim region, which oversees federal property in California, Arizona, Nevada and the Pacific Islands, received $47,012 in gifts. The next year that number increased to $211,842, then dropped to $134,596 by 2010. In 2011, the program issued $844 worth of awards.
Jeffrey E. Neely became acting commissioner of the region in January 2009. Neely was placed on administrative leave after details of the Vegas training conference became public. Expenditures for the awards program dropped dramatically after the inspector general began his investigation.
The report found:
●Employees associated with administering the Hats Off Program were among the top 10 of recipients.
●Instances of employees swapping awards with each other and supervisors accepting items from employees.
●One employee, whose name was redacted from the report, gave “out 635 awards to 113 individuals, totaling $3,175.”
●The Pacific Rim region maintained an inadequate inventory system and meager security on the storage room that held the gift items.
●Total employee awards exceeded GSA’s 4 percent cap on employee annual salaries. Awards for Region 9 employees also exceeded GSA’s $99-per-item limit on gifts.
Five government-issued purchasing cards were used to make purchases for the online Hats Off store, the inspector general found. In four instances, holders split the purchases to circumvent the cards’ single-purchase limit, a violation of agency regulations.
Unidentified Public Buildings Service cardholders allowed others, including two student interns, to make purchases with the cards to buy items for the store, a violation of GSA regulations.
The employee awards program was founded in 2001 as a merit-based point system that would offer coupons that could be redeemed at the Hats Off store. Initially, prizes included GSA-stamped mouse pads and backpacks but eventually included electronic goods.
Items in the store included 8G iPod Nanos (redeemable with 30 virtual hats) and Coby 7-inch Portable Tablet DVD Player (redeemable with 20 virtual hats). The office of the inspector general was first alerted to improprieties in the Pacific Rims region’s Hats Off Program after a report to the Federal Protective Service of the Department of Homeland Security of more than 40 missing iPods.
The Pacific Rim region organized the 2010 conference that cost $823,000 and included penthouse suites, a clown and a mentalist. GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson resigned following revelations of the conference, and two of her senior assistants were fired.
GSA has since terminated the Hats Off Program, an agency spokesman said.