Special Counsel Backs Whistleblower, Says GSA ‘Grossly Mismanaged’ Tech Funds

Ex-acquisition service commissioner Tom Sharpe wins settlement.

The Office of Special Counsel on Thursday announced that it had reached a settlement with the General Services Administration on behalf of recently resigned Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Tom Sharpe.

The office said GSA “had grossly mismanaged its Technology Transformation Service” as described in a GSA report that OSC has forwarded to Congress and the White House, the special counsel having judged the response of the Obama administration’s GSA to Sharpe’s whistleblower disclosures to be “unreasonable.”

Sharpe resigned abruptly from the agency in June (his job is now occupied by Alan Thomas) just as the GSA inspector general was reporting that Sharpe had earlier made “protected disclosures” about  “concerns of violations of law, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds and abuse of authority” to former GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth, the former deputy administrator, the former General Counsel, and the OIG.

Sharpe had disagreed with the funding mechanisms for the digital services team called 18F and GSA’s subsequent reorganization to build innovation into its technology programs for other agencies.

The IG found that Roth had threatened to transfer Sharpe and reduce his duties at FAS after he objected to her funding the new Technology Transformation Service with money from the multi-billion-dollar Acquisition Services Fund, which had been run out of Sharpe’s office. The IG referred its retaliation findings to OSC, and on June 28, OSC obtained unspecified relief for Sharpe, who entered into a settlement with the GSA to resolve his whistleblower retaliation claim, OSC said.

In its report, GSA said TTS financial forecast models reflected an established pattern of overestimating revenue projections and willfully disregarding losses, OSC wrote. These losses exceeded $31 million, according to Sharpe and the GSA OIG, and continued to grow in fiscal 2016. “The GSA found that TTS violated the Economy Act by failing to recover costs of work performed through inaccurate financial projections and excessive staffing levels,” OSC said. The IG “substantiated Mr. Sharpe’s allegations that the GSA grossly mismanaged TTS, and improperly financed TTS with significant Acquisition Services Fund monies in violation of the Economy Act.”

However, GSA did not substantiate Sharpe’s related allegation that the legal framework for TTS also violated the General Services Modernization Act.

In a letter to the president and Congress, Acting Special Counsel Adam Miles said this spring’s “realignment of TTS may resolve concerns about the legal framework for these services.” However, “without additional details on improved management controls, the realignment does not address Mr. Sharpe’s broader, substantiated concerns about mismanagement, and his related questions about whether the taxpayers are receiving a solid benefit from this program.”

Former GSA Administrator Roth, in an email last month to Federal News Radio, said she was disappointed in the IG’s report.

Her predecessor, Dan Tangherlini, told Government Executive that while he respects whistleblower protections, he is “concerned that the inspector general used that important power to try and settle internal policy disputes.” He prefers to create a “culture that allows people to raise their hands and express concern about policy decisions but that continues to encourage innovation.”

It’s disappointing, Tangherlini added, that the IG had to spend more time on “various questions about the process” rather than on the cost savings of the 18F program.

“There was some concern that 18F would be a competitor to the Acquisition Services Fund and GSA Schedule 70, but those were risks we were willing to take. Competition of ideas is how we make things better….within the lines drawn by Congress and the regulations,” said Tangherlini, now founder and president of SeamlessDocs Federal. “I know we set up 18F entirely for the benefit of the American taxpayer. And last time I checked, that’s what’s what government is supposed to do.”