The Government Accountability Office released a review Thursday stating that the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap broke a law mandating that Congress be informed of prisoner transfers from Guantanamo. The review handed opponents of President Obama powerful reinforcement of two of their key critiques: that Obama routinely oversteps his executive authority, and that his maneuvers on foreign policy make the country less safe. But the actual effect of the letter from the nonpartisan agency may be only that — that it becomes a political talking point.
A review of the GAO's past determinations of illegality shows that the consequences of those decisions vary widely — and that the substance of the charge has always fallen far short of allegations that the chief executive violated federal legislation.
1982: The GAO determines that Interior Secretary James Watt improperly used $9,000 in government funds. When Watt held a private party at a government site, the GAO (then called the "General Accounting Office") determined that it was an improper use of funds. For months, Democrats hounded Watt for repayment of the money. Eventually, a Republican group picked up the tab.
Consequence: Watt was already a controversial figure in the administration of Ronald Reagan, and would end up leaving his position after making a joke about various minority groups. The GAO report had little effect.
1985: The GAO finds that William Bolger, head of the Postal Service Board, possibly violated the law in seeking a job with an organization that had business before the board. Bolger, a former postmaster general, reportedly spoke with the Direct Marketing Association about getting a job while the DMA was involved in a discussion of postal rates before the board.
Severity: Very low.
Consequence: Bolger had already left his position by the time the GAO report came out. It's not immediately clear that there was any significant consequence.
1987–1989: Various illegalities related to the savings and loan crisis. By the late 1980s, the problems with oversight of savings and loan institutions had become a significant problem, leading to various government bailouts. The GAO, as auditor of the Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp., had a significant role in rooting out the trouble.
In 1987, the GAO found that federal regulators had violated the law by accepting travel and expense cost payments from banks. The problem was much wider than improper payments to regulators, though, and the GAO was kept busy uncovering other malfeasance related to the scandal. In 1989, the Los Angeles Times wrote that "[t]he thrust of the GAO report implies that the massive wave of collapses in the U.S. savings and loan industry will be viewed ultimately as the biggest white-collar crime in history."
Consequence: The breadth of the scandal ensnared various elected officials, including the so-called Keating Five.
1991: FEMA illegally distributed millions of dollars in grants in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. After Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave out cash grants to people in the region, which recipients used to buy, as the Atlanta Journal and Constitution put it, "non-relief items as color televisions, VCRs, washing machines and refrigerators."
Consequence: FEMA developed its Federal Response Plan in the wake of criticism over its handling of Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area. Earlier this year, the GAO again criticized FEMA's spending practices.
1997: The GAO finds that Treasury Inspector General Valerie Lau violated spending rules by not bidding out work. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about this is what Lau was spending money on. Lau's office spent $345,000 in an effort to improve morale, according to the AP, hiring a contractor that "produced seminars and 1,000 six-inch rulers with inspirational phrases." To do so, she didn't go through a competitive bidding process. One contract went to a friend of hers.
Consequence: Lau left her position in 1998.
1998: The D.C. Financial Control Board illegally overpaid staff members. The board, assigned with overseeing finances in the nation's capital, was supposed to have its employees' pay tied to federal pay scales. It decided to pay staffers more anyway.
Severity: Very low.
Consequence: Congress voted to authorize one of the pay increases retroactively. The other employees took pay cuts.
2000: The Bureau of Land Management kept money from land sales and used it to buy more land instead of returning it to the Treasury. The critique of the BLM's practices was much broader than the fact that the agency didn't properly deal with the money it made from land sales, but that was the part that violated the law. The agency also routinely undervalued government land and overvalued private land in land-trading transactions, according to the GAO. The Denver Post reported that in one deal in Nevada, "the GAO reported that the BLM sold land for $763,000 to a buyer who resold it the same day for $4.6 million."
It's a critique that has come up repeatedly, in various forms. Earlier this year, the agency was criticized for leasing land used for coal mining at below-market rates.
Consequence: It's not clear that there were any significant consequences.
2004 – 2005: The administration violated the law by making fake newscasts and paying columnists to promote government programs. To bolster support for the Medicare Part D changes instituted in 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services created videos offering more information about the program. Among the videos were ones that were designed to looks like newscasts — a violation of prohibitions against spending federal money on propaganda. The GAO found similar problems the following year in an effort to promote "No Child Left Behind." In addition, the GAO found in 2005 that the administration paid conservative commentators to promote its policies.
Consequence: Congress called for reimbursement for the HHS video production. In 2010, the private firm behind both sets of ads got a federal contract from HHS to help promote the stimulus.
2014: The Department of Energy sidestepped rules on pricing and national security to help a uranium company. In May, the GAO found that the DOE had made four transactions of uranium to help a financially troubled uranium enrichment company called USEC. It found legal concerns with all four, including transferring material that it held to meet national security needs without the president determining it no longer met that need.
Consequence: Nothing yet.