Cronyism, 'Wasteful' Spending Accusations Roil Government Publishing Office

Dec 31, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2019 10:49 pm

Allegations of cronyism, wasteful spending and other misconduct are roiling a little-known federal agency in charge of producing and distributing the government's official documents, including paper questionnaires for the upcoming 2020 census.

According to an internal watchdog report obtained by NPR, two officials at the U.S. Government Publishing Office — previously known as the Government Printing Office — allegedly violated federal laws and regulations by filling agency jobs with unqualified candidates, including an official's son. The GPO's Office of Inspector General has not finalized its findings, but in June, it sent an interim report to the joint congressional committee that oversees the agency.

Lawmakers on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee have "sought additional information regarding allegations of misconduct at the GPO," according to Katie Boyd, spokeswoman for Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. His committee shares oversight of the GPO with the House Administration Committee.

The inspector general's office found "mismanagement, misuse of position, and disregard" for hiring and contracting rules by two of the agency's most senior managers over the course of four years, beginning in 2014 during the Obama administration, according to the report.

The Government Publishing Office is responsible for providing the country with income tax forms, Social Security cards, U.S. passports and other official documents. With $117 million in appropriations from Congress this fiscal year and two facilities in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi, the GPO employs about 1,700 workers.

Census printing contract also problematic

An earlier inspector general investigation, first reported by NPR, found that GPO officials violated contracting rules and procedures in awarding the 2020 census printing contract to a company that, less than four months later, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In July, the Justice Department ended that $61 million contract.

The GPO was expected to announce a replacement contractor by November, but that hasn't happened even as a crucial deadline nears. According to the Census Bureau, printing for the 2020 census must start by June 2019 to avoid disrupting the final preparations for the constitutionally mandated head count.

The inspector general's office is continuing to investigate the awarding of the original 2020 census contract. It also plans to review the process for the new contract, including "any breakdowns in policies, process and internal controls," according to a new annual work plan that the IG office provided to NPR.

Meanwhile, the agency is without a permanent director. Its last permanent director — Davita Vance-Cooks, appointed by President Barack Obama — left in November 2017. After she left, two officials retired after serving as the agency's acting leader for a combined eight months.

In June, President Trump nominated Robert Tapella as the next GPO director. Tapella previously led the agency under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. He has yet to be called for a Senate confirmation hearing.

"Betraying the public trust"

According to the Office of Inspector General's June report on management problems at the GPO, the investigation was spurred by multiple complaints of misconduct. Investigators said they conducted interviews, reviewed internal documents and consulted the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C.

The report is "part of an active and ongoing investigation, and the matters have not been finalized," the GPO's current inspector general, Melinda Miguel, said in an email. Miguel confirmed that the document obtained by NPR is a copy of the original report that the agency's then-acting inspector general, Stephen Roy, prepared for members of Congress.

The report focuses on Herbert Jackson Jr., the GPO's current acting head who has served as the chief administrative officer, and Andrew Sherman, a former acting deputy director whose retirement from the agency was announced two days before the report was submitted to Congress.

From 2014 to 2018, Jackson and Sherman "orchestrated a scheme to bypass the competitive hiring process and engaged in cronyism, thereby betraying the public trust," Roy wrote in the report.

"The improper hiring of two otherwise ineligible employees was conducted openly and without regard for those employees who try to work within the rules, resulting in an erosion of morale and perpetuating the appearance that GPO senior leadership is subject to different standards of conduct," Roy wrote.

The inspector general determined that the payments made to the two "ineligible" employees — totaling nearly $440,000 — were "wasteful" because laws about hiring and contracting for the federal government, "put in place to safeguard taxpayer dollars, were not followed."

Both Jackson and Sherman declined to comment to NPR after multiple requests.

In an email to NPR, the GPO's chief public relations officer, Gary Somerset, said that the agency cannot comment at this time about the interim IG report because "this issue is still part of an ongoing IG investigation."

Jackson and Sherman "did not dispute the vast majority of facts" in the report, according to Roy, who now serves as the assistant inspector general for investigations at the agency. But, according to correspondence with the joint committee that oversees the GPO, Sherman has questioned the credibility of the investigation.

The report details the two cases of alleged cronyism.

In 2014, Jackson's son, Herbert Jackson III, joined the GPO through an internship program. He was appointed to a position with a GPO division that Jackson indirectly supervised. Then-Director Vance-Cooks was informed of the arrangement, which Roy reported violated federal law and agency policy. Investigators with the IG's office found that Vance-Cooks "allowed the situation to persist without taking action." She has not responded to multiple requests for comment from NPR.

The Government Publishing Office's then-Director Davita Vance-Cooks (left) inspects the production run of President Trump's 2018 fiscal year federal budget with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in 2017 at the GPO's plant in Washington, D.C.
Carolyn Kaster / AP

Sherman, who was acting deputy director at the time, did not take steps to remedy the situation until he "became aware" of the investigation in May, Roy wrote. At that time, Sherman reassigned the GPO unit where Jackson's son worked to be under the chain of command of the agency's Office of the Director rather than under Jackson.

But, Roy wrote in the report, the new arrangement still violated policies that prohibit Jackson's son from working at an agency where Jackson, as a senior GPO manager, could influence his son's advancement. Both direct and indirect supervision are generally prohibited.

According to the IG report, the employment of Jackson's son, who worked at the GPO over four years, cost taxpayers more than $109,000.

Herbert Jackson III could not be reached for comment.

The other case involved a family friend of a staffer for the House Appropriations Committee who played a key role in GPO funding. In 2014, that friend, Kimberly Travis, was appointed to the GPO as an employee communications specialist. After her appointment ended, investigators found that she was later placed on multiple personal services contracts at the GPO, despite not qualifying as an expert or consultant. Payments to her cost taxpayers a total of more than $328,000, according to the IG report.

"Sherman's efforts to keep Travis employed at GPO contributed to an overall deterioration of employee morale," Roy wrote in the report.

Sherman ordered Travis' contract to be terminated in June, after he found out the Office of Inspector General was investigating. According to the report, Sherman acknowledged that Travis should have been removed from the GPO earlier.

Travis has not responded to requests for comment.

A worker checks copies of the 2012 fiscal year budget appendix before they are stacked at the Government Publishing Office in Washington, D.C.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

Plans for a "vigorous oversight regime"

Findings from GPO inspector general investigations can be referred to the Justice Department for criminal or civil charges.

Oversight of the GPO, a legislative branch agency, falls to lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Printing, which is made up of members of both the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the House Administration Committee. Under the law, the committee "may use any measures it considers necessary to remedy neglect, delay, duplication, or waste."

The spokesman for the Democrats on the House Administration Committee, Peter Whippy, says they "plan to implement a vigorous oversight regime" over the GPO when the Democrat-controlled House takes office next month. A spokeswoman for the committee's Republicans, Courtney Parella, wrote in an email: "The committee can't comment at this time."

Roy addressed the seven-page report to the leaders of the joint committee: Sen. Blunt and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

"Because this report implicates the two most senior GPO managers, I am reporting this issue directly to the Committee in the belief that the Committee has the authority to address these problems," Roy wrote.

Noting that the investigation is ongoing, Katie Boyd, spokeswoman for Blunt, said in an email that the senator "will review the final report when it is completed" and that the committee "will remain actively engaged in oversight."

It is unclear who will lead internal oversight at the GPO in the new year. This month, Florida's Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis announced the GPO's current inspector general, Melinda Miguel, is leaving the agency to serve in his administration.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Accusations of cronyism and wasteful spending have been made against a little-known federal agency. The Government Publishing Office is in charge of producing official documents from passports and social security cards to tax forms and the 2020 census. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has obtained an internal investigative report that alleges misconduct by two of the agency's top officials. He joins us now to talk more about it. And, Hansi, first, who conducted this internal investigation at the GPO?

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: This is part of an ongoing investigation by the GPO's internal watchdog group. It's called the Office of the Inspector General. We obtained an interim report that was sent to Congress back in June. And the authenticity of the report was confirmed to us by the GPO's current Inspector General Melinda Miguel. And this report says the investigators found what they called the improper hiring of two employees. Both joined the agency in 2014 during the Obama administration. And the report estimated that the cost to taxpayers was more than $400,000.

CORNISH: Who are these workers? And what does the report say was wrong with their hiring?

LO WANG: Well, one of them is the son of the current acting head of the agency Herbert Jackson Jr. And in general, you're not allowed to work at a federal agency where a relative is a supervisor whether directly or indirectly. And this investigation found that Jackson's son was appointed to an internship position at the GPO. And Jackson was indirectly supervising the division where his son was working. And this went on for four years.

This report also focuses on another former employee. She was a family friend of a former congressional staffer involved with GPO funding. And the investigators say this GPO worker did not qualify as an expert or a consultant. And that would have exempted her from the general hiring rules. And the report says a former GPO official Andrew Sherman made sure she was paid through multiple contracts over four years.

CORNISH: Now, what happens next? We're talking about senior officials - right? - at the government publishing office.

LO WANG: Well, I reached out to both of those officials and to the GPO. All declined to comment. The GPO's spokesman says the investigation is still ongoing. And Andrew Sherman, one of those top officials, is no longer with the GPO. But according to a letter he has sent to Congress, he has questioned the credibility of this investigation. And the other thing to keep in mind here is that oversight ultimately falls to lawmakers on a joint congressional committee. And the spokesperson for the House Democrats on the committee says they're playing a, quote, "vigorous oversight regime in the new Congress."

CORNISH: This might be the first time that many people have even heard of the Government Publishing Office. What impact could mismanagement at this small agency have on the rest of the government?

LO WANG: Right. This is a little-known agency. But it does play a critical role especially when it comes to the once-a-decade census. You know, an earlier inspector general investigation found that GPO officials violated contracting rules for the printing of the 2020 census. They still have not announced the new contractor. And the Census Bureau says printing those forms has to start by June to avoid disrupting preparations. So mismanagement at the GPO could have big implications because a 2020 census affects how seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the states and how federal funding is distributed over the next decade.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. He's been reporting on an investigation into alleged misconduct at the Government Publishing Office. Hansi, thank you.

LO WANG: You're welcome.

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