Education Secretary vows to root out waste and mismanagement

A team of senior career managers at the Education Department will work over the next three months to eliminate mismanagement and fraud at the agency, Secretary Rod Paige announced late last week. Paige has assembled an eight-member team from Education's senior ranks as part of an initiative to root out waste, fraud and abuse within the department. The senior managers were pulled away from their regular jobs to focus exclusively on improving management and financial accountability within the agency. "Every dollar we waste on fraud or mismanagement is a dollar that could be used for teaching our children, and this department cannot and will not continue wasting those precious resources," said Paige. Over the next three months, the task force will work on obtaining a clean financial audit by 2002, removing the student financial aid programs from the General Accounting Office's high-risk list and developing internal controls to protect the department from mismanagement. The team will release a blueprint of its recommendations for improving management at the end of three months. Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Education, said the department will reevaluate the group's role at that point. Paige also urged President Bush to appoint a chief financial officer and an assistant secretary for management at Education as soon as possible. "I am working closely with the President, who is seeking some experienced leaders with strong management credentials to appoint to these positions," said Paige. The chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management positions at Education have been vacant for two and five years, respectively. The Council for Excellence in Government will work with Education's team, selecting a panel of experts to advise the department and review the team's recommendations for improving financial management. The Education Department, which hasn't received a clean financial audit since 1997, has a history of financial management problems compounded by cases of fraud. According to the agency's inspector general, more than $450 million in agency funds have been misused over the past three years.

In March 2000, an agency employee embezzled nearly $2 million in federal grant money intended for two South Dakota school districts and used the money to purchase cars and property. The department seized the property and funds and both districts eventually received all of their grant money. From January 1997 to December 1999, contractors and Education employees conspiring together stole more than $300,000 worth of electronic equipment and collected more than $600,000 in false overtime pay. The House passed a bill during the 106th Congress authorizing the Comptroller General to conduct an audit of certain accounts at Education, but the legislation stalled in the Senate. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., reintroduced the bill in January. Hoekstra praised the department's initiative Friday and said he hoped the action would usher in a new era of fiscal accountability at Education. President Bush's fiscal 2002 budget proposal increases Education's funding to $44.5 billion from $39.9 billion in fiscal 2001.

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