Bad News, Good News

There are some silver linings in recent reports of federal employee misbehavior.

In late September, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Scott D. Clark, an auditor with the Denver office of the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general, was facing a felony animal cruelty charge related to an incident at an Embassy Suites hotel in St. Paul, Minn., where he had stayed during a work assignment. According to witnesses, Scott cornered a duck near an atrium pond at the hotel and ripped its head off. Announcing, "I'm hungry. I'm gonna eat it," Clark got on an elevator with the headless bird and took it up to the fifth floor.

On top of that, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, local law enforcement officials said in an official complaint filed against Clark that after police arrived on the scene, he said "that he worked for the federal government and when this was over he would have the officers' jobs."

That might have been the weirdest story of federal employee misbehavior of the fall, but it certainly wasn't the only one.

The Washington Post, picking up on stories by Government Executive and others dating back to 2002, reported on federal employees' abuse of policies governing compensatory time for attendance at religious services. Congressional investigators, the paper reported, found that Food and Drug Administration employees were allowed to accrue large balances of religious leave-and some were paid for unused portions of it when they changed jobs or retired.

At about the same time, the Dallas Business Journal was reporting that an initiative called Operation FedRent at the Housing and Urban Development Department had led to the indictment of five employees in Texas on charges of lying about their incomes to defraud HUD out of almost $150,000 in rental subsidies.

And in early October, the Government Accountability Office reported that agencies had spent $146 million between July 2005 and June 2006 on unauthorized or unjustified premium-class travel. In some cases, senior officials flew business class or first class simply because they felt entitled to the privilege.

Among all the bad news, though, there was some support for the optimistic belief that the federal workforce isn't going to hell in a handbasket. Take the religious leave story. It seems clear that many employees accumulated their time off honestly and notified their agencies when they received payment for it, which they thought was unwarranted. An FDA executive, for example, wrote his agency a check for $13,000 after he was promoted because he questioned whether he should have received reimbursement for accrued religious leave.

And buried in the stories about misuse of premium-class travel was this nugget: At the Defense Department, use of such perks has dropped steeply since 2003, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year, according to Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "I don't pat [agencies] on the back too often," Coleman told The New York Times. "Here, they deserve it."

A few days later, the Times ran a story of an altogether encouraging kind. It focused on the quiet, earnest commitment of Spencer H. Lewis Jr., the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's New York office. Lewis was in the news because his office issued a report finding that New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders was a victim of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination by the team's head coach, Isiah Thomas. That determination paved the way for Sanders to file a lawsuit that recently resulted in a jury awarding her $11.6 million in damages.

Even for those of us who cover the federal government on a regular basis, it's easy to focus on stories of employees who run rental subsidy scams or rip the heads off ducks. It was nice to get a reminder that stories like Lewis' are a lot more typical of the people who devote their careers to federal service.

Does the fact that it's easier than ever to find stories of federal employees gone bad in the media mean that news organizations are, like always, more interested in the negative news than the positive? Well, yeah. But remember, this isn't just any institution we're talking about here. This is the U.S. government. And its employees should be held to a higher standard. Which it makes it all the more impressive when they meet or clear it.

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