GSA asked to justify $750,000 in travel for high-level telecommuters

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., seeks information on GSA's telework policy. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., seeks information on GSA's telework policy. Susan Walsh/AP

In yet more fallout from April’s scandal over lavish spending by the General Services Administration, a key House committee chairman is seeking agency documents and justification for reimbursements of travel expenses incurred by dozens of employees who telecommute full time.

Public Buildings Service emails that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has obtained show that 95 mostly high-grade ‘virtual’ employees -- including a dozen supervisors -- billed GSA for a total of $750,000 from October 2010 to June 2011. Internal emails indicate that such reimbursements were alarming to regional commissioners, among them the recently retired Jeff Neely, the man at the center of the controversial training conference held in Las Vegas in October 2010.

Rules governing the handling of so-called virtual employees are based on the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act. GSA has long been considered a leader in the telecommuting movement -- in March, then-administrator Martha Johnson declared the agency’s efforts during National Telework Week “a roaring success.”

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in a June 1 letter to acting GSA administrator Dan Tangherlini, asked for copies of all documents, including invoices for the past three years, related to the reimbursements, by June 14. He also asked for a broader response, seeking all documents and guidance on the administration of the agency’s policy on virtual employees.

“In situations where employees are not required to be physically present at an official location, the lack of direct supervisory oversight creates the potential for abuse,” Issa wrote. “It is unclear whether abuse by certain virtual employees or a lack of oversight, or both, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent by less than 100 employees in less than one year.”

GSA spokesman Adam Elkington said in an email to Government Executive that the agency “is reviewing the letter and is working to respond to the committee’s request.” He added that in April, “GSA began conducting an extensive review of our agency’s operations, which includes our travel policy and staff deployment. Our agency remains committed to eliminating any excessive spending and promoting government efficiency.”

Since taking over GSA after the resignation of Johnson, Tangherlini has curbed general travel and revamped management of travel requests, though the policy review continues. Under the new policies, all travel by virtual employees must be justified and approved, GSA said.

Issa’s letter faults GSA for failing to document knowledge of the precise virtual employment arrangements of 36 individuals. “This indicates a lack of proper insight and an ignorance of the regulations that government federal telework programs,” he wrote. “The committee seeks to gauge the effectiveness and legitimacy of the [agency’s] spending on travel costs for virtual workers. The American people have a right to know that federal bureaucrats who enjoy the benefits of virtual work are eligible and responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Internal GSA emails quoted in Issa’s letter show that PBS Regional Commissioner Robin Graf, who is now on administrative leave, interpreted the reimbursement costs -- which averaged $8,000 per employee -- as a sign that the virtual employment arrangements are in need of further review to determine their impact on budgets and employee engagement.

Neely also was uncomfortable with the results, forwarding a related email but requesting that it not be widely shared. “OMG. 100 virtuals and most of them with some pretty serious grades,” he wrote. “[W]ell this is a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”

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