GSA watchdog finds himself on other side of misconduct investigation

During the past year, the General Services Administration's inspector general has made headlines and raised congressional ire by raising allegations of cronyism, mismanagement and intimidation by agency Administrator Lurita Doan.

However, a former high-ranking IG official now alleges that it is the inspector general and his top deputies that have abused their authority and misused agency resources in an effort to retaliate against whistleblowers and other career employees who disagreed with their decisions.

In a series of complaints filed last year with the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, Kevin Buford, who until earlier this month served as counsel to GSA Inspector General Brian Miller, paints a picture of an office beset with infighting and internal power struggles.

The complaints, first reported on The Washington Post's Government Inc. blog on Monday, allege that Miller and former Deputy Inspector General Robert Samuels engaged in improper personnel actions that could rise to the level of criminal behavior.

"Acting DIG Samuels, with the apparent approval or at least knowledgeable acquiescence of Inspector General Miller, has recklessly violated the law in connection with a nonreimbursable detail of an OIG employee," Buford wrote in an October 2007 complaint to Clay Johnson III, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget and the chairman of the PCIE, which investigates complaints about inspectors general. "It appears [Miller and Samuels] have misused the resources of the [OIG] by transforming a principally open, audit-driven Office of Internal Evaluation into a secretive tool for, among other things, inaccurate and improper personnel actions."

Buford filed a hotline complaint against Samuels in September, stating he had improperly detailed a whistleblower to another agency, and later added a supplemental complaint that included Miller. After Miller informed his deputy of the complaints, Samuels filed his own hotline complaint against Buford.

Buford said Samuels' actions amount to a violation of federal personnel practices that prohibit retaliation against subordinates involved in whistleblower complaints. Samuels said that by filing his complaint he was simply addressing what he believed were retaliatory criticisms against him, "which constitutes an abuse of the complaint system."

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Miller refused to comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing PCIE investigation. On Thursday, his office provided a two-sentence statement on the complaints.

"Whenever a manager attempts to bring needed changes to an organization, there may be a few unhappy people," the statement read. "The personnel detail in question was made on solid legal ground, supported by the published opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice."

Samuels, who retired from the IG office in November after 30 years in government, defended his actions in a statement to Government Executive. He contended that the nonreimbursable detail in question had been approved by Chris Langello, an IG staff attorney from the Office of Internal Evaluation. Langello also wrote the counsel's office memo on details several years earlier.

"The allegations of wrongdoing are unfounded and contain numerous and significant errors, omissions and distortions," Samuels said. "By filing its specious complaints and asserting the pre-emptive exclusivity of those complaints, counsel launched a plan to seek control over management decisions, evade appropriate management by the front office, deny front office personnel their rights to report counsel's abuses, and disable the Internal Evaluation unit from looking into them. The effect of counsel's plan could be to undermine the OIG's efforts to continue effective oversight of GSA operations."

Buford, who left the IG office on Jan. 4 to take a position with NASA, declined to comment on his complaint.

The dispute appears to have been ignited in the fall of 2006 when a female IG employee made five "relatively narrow allegations" against IG management, the complaint said. The documents do not elaborate on the nature of these complaints, which were subsequently investigated by OIE.

Buford alleges that Samuels first attempted to appease the whistleblower by preventing her managers from completing a partially negative performance evaluation of the employee. He said Samuels was acting "out of the expressed concern that these allegations and others might come to the attention of the administrator of the GSA with negative consequences for the inspector general."

Samuels then approved an eight-month detail for the whistleblower with the Housing and Urban Development Department's chief information officer. The detail was extended several times by Samuels.

During that same time, Buford alleged that OIE officials began work on a 92-page report that was critical of the whistleblower and blamed her direct supervisors for failing to document her performance problems.

"Both my deputy counsel and I raised vociferous objections that the report and any such disciplinary action would be viewed as retaliatory acts," Buford wrote. "Fortunately, the report was eventually withdrawn and replaced with a more appropriate 12-page report dealing solely with the allegations raised by this employee. However, this withdrawal did not erase our concerns that from all appearances, the resources of the [OIE] had been used to prepare an unwarranted and retaliatory report."

Samuels, however, contends that the detail was established and extended with the approval of multiple senior managers in the IG's office. "Indeed, this detail facilitated training in and important new work on computer security, an area of concern common to all OIGs, and the fruits of the detail were recently the subject of a GSA OIG presentation to the PCIE, a coordinating committee of IG offices," he said.

By the spring of 2007, the dispute appeared to have escalated from an interoffice quarrel to full-scale bureaucratic combat between senior IG management and the counsel's office.

Buford, who started in the counsel's office in May, said management ordered a surprise review of the office's work that was targeted at then-Deputy Counsel Virginia Grebasch. Management, he said, then urged him to ask for a second review because the first one was "defective and Deputy Counsel Grebasch was a problem employee who was 'keeping book' " on Miller.

But Samuels argued that the problem was the "pattern of increasingly troubling performance in the leadership of the counsel's office." He cited Grebasch -- who now works at GSA's General Counsel's Office -- and another staff attorney's insistence on working on the audit of a controversial Sun Microsystems contract.

The two attorneys, he said, "ignored the front office and insisted on going to San Francisco for a week of training . . . during which the counsel planned to be on vacation, leaving the counsel's office in D.C. short-staffed at the height of the Sun controversy in July 2007."

The battle between the two offices persisted even after Samuels retired and was replaced by Robert Erickson, a career prosecutor with the Justice Department.

According to a second PCIE complaint filed in December and signed by Buford, Grebasch and two other attorneys, Miller and Erickson singled out the counsel's office "to force reductions and, many surmise, demoralize its remaining staff to the point of voluntarily seeking other jobs."

The attorneys said that in recent months, IG management discouraged personnel from soliciting advice from the counsel's office; provided OIE with inappropriate access to the counsel's databases; cut off leadership opportunities and business travel, and reversed a commitment to hire a junior attorney.

A spokeswoman for the PCIE's Johnson said the office could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Buford's allegations could re-ignite a war of words between the IG and the administrator. Miller has investigated Doan for her role in the Sun Microsystems contract, her alleged attempt to give a sole-source contract to a friend and her participation in a politically motivated conference.

Doan has denied the allegations and said Miller is angry about spending cuts and increased oversight she proposed for the IG's office.

A GSA spokesperson characterized Buford's complaints as "very serious," and said they should be thoroughly investigated.

"The inspector general and his deputy, responsible for ensuring that the agency operates in a lawful manner, are themselves accused by these four whistleblowers of participating in illegal activities," the spokesperson said. "It is important that an objective third party investigate these allegations and get to the bottom of these issues quickly."

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