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How whistleblowers helped government curb DHS overtime abuse

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Recent whistleblower actions have helped the government curb overtime abuses within the Department of Homeland Security, where border agents once clocked extra hours while working as CrossFit instructors.

In a memo released Thursday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel told President Obama that the government is on track to save an estimated $100 million through steps Congress and the department took to address the problem.

The watchdog agency, which investigates and prosecutes federal whistleblower cases, called Homeland Security’s overtime problems “profound and entrenched” and a “gross waste of government funds” when it first revealed them in a 2013 report to the White House and Congress.

Based off tips from 11 federal workers, Office of Special Counsel discovered a longstanding trend of overtime misuse, including 93 employees who charged the government for CrossFit work such as “gym maintenance” and “class preparation.”

A 2013 Washington Post report detailed how Customs and Border Protection employees, who fall under the Homeland Security umbrella, used “administratively uncontrollable overtime” (AUO) to pad their pay, sometimes adding up to 25 percent to their wages.

The overtime was meant to compensate for urgent and unanticipated work by law enforcement-agents. But it became so routine that managers pitched it as a perk with recruits, and workers sometimes referred to it as a “candy bowl,” according to the Office of Special Counsel.

“After years of inaction, the entrenched AUO problem is now on a path toward resolution,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in the memo. “It’s important to recognize that if the whistleblowers had not stepped forward, this waste of taxpayer funds would never have been corrected.”

After the office’s 2013 report, Congress and Homeland Security overhauled the department’s overtime policies and largely replaced administratively uncontrollable overtime.

As a result, Customs and Border Protection reduced its biweekly overtime payment by $3.2 million, for a projected annual savings of $83.7 million.

In December 2014, Congress passed the bipartisan Border Patrol Agent Pay Reform Act, which requires stricter guidelines for overtime. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) sponsored the measure.

Homeland Security also suspended the use and payment of administratively uncontrollable overtime for all employees engaged as full-time instructors, including CrossFit instructors, according to the Office of Special Counsel.

Homeland Security and the agency’s inspector general have substantiated that agents were paid for CrossFit instruction in violation of department regulations.

Agencies throughout the government use administratively uncontrollable overtime, but each has discretion over how to regulate it. The Office of Special Counsel said it has not received reports of abuses outside of Homeland Security.

Over the past year, as federal cuts have torn through department budgets, the use and misuse of overtime has become a matter of increasing concern among federal managers, employees and unions.

In 2013, a DHS spokesman said acting Secretary Rand Beers has ordered a department-wide review of how AUO is used and whether it complies with the law and other rules.

Some DHS employees routinely claim more than their “straight eight,” with two hours of overtime every day, recounted one of the whistleblowers, Jose Rafael Ducos Bello, who works as a supervisor for Customs and Border Protection, until recently in Washington. “It’s pickpocketing Uncle Sam,” he said in a previous interview with The Post.