Taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for such events, IG says.
File this one under “seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Twenty-one employees and contractors of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May 2013 agreed to attend a special team-building exercise. It consisted of a four-hour restaurant lunch and theater viewing of “Star Trek: Into the Darkness.”
An anonymous whistleblower cried foul, and the Commerce Department inspector general launched a probe. On Thursday, its report on the moviegoing feds and contractors working on NOAA’s Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite-R Series confirms much of the original complaint.
The whistleblower had said the exercise, which the supervisor later characterized as a way to build unity, “created the appearance of disregard for tax dollars and questioned whether the employees’ time and attendance entries for the event were accurate and whether such an event could be a contributing factor in GOES-R schedule delays.”
The IG found that of 21 employees and consultants (employed by Noblis, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the Aerospace Corporation) who were invited to the lunch and matinee, 20 attended the lunch and 18 saw the 132-minute movie. Management “provided no guidance to staff regarding proper time and attendance entries for the activity in the days leading up to outing,” and a supervisor later told investigators he assumed employees would use personal leave time or make up the missed hours.
“Even if watching a Star Trek movie as a unit results in greater unity or cohesion, such an event should not be considered billable to the government,” the report concluded. “Unlike training events, which are designed to develop tangible professional skills, this event was social in nature and offered no professional development whatsoever.”
Thirteen of the movie attendees—six government and seven contract employees—failed to charge their attendance at the movie as non-work hours. Their timecards were subsequently amended or annotated, after the watchdog probe began.
However, another review in March by Noblis, found that its employees had not properly accounted for the four-hour event, prompting the IG’s office to launch the investigation. Using labor rates, the four companies then reimbursed the government for the hours improperly billed. Absent any adjustments, the IG calculated, the cost of the event to NOAA would have been nearly $3,500.
In the end, the IG said, “Although we found that four contract employees incorrectly billed their hours for the event, we determined that 17 of the employees who participated in the event properly accounted for the event or made up the time by working extra hours during the same pay period.”
The watchdog cautioned that “The results of this investigation are not intended to suggest that GOES-R management discontinue attempts to build unity or morale through appropriate events. However, events like the matinee viewing of the latest Star Trek movie . . . should not be conducted at the expense of taxpayers. Management must always consider proper timekeeping when promoting such events and provide clear guidance to the staff and relevant contractors prior to these events. “
In a statement, a NOAA spokesman said the agency takes the findings seriously and will implement the IG’s recommendations to ensure employees and contractors understand regulations regarding accurate timekeeping.
“When this issue first came to light in 2013, the GOES-R Program Office took immediate action and proactively issued guidance to each employee and contractor that clearly defined what was appropriate work and personal time usage. As OIG report confirms, the government has since been reimbursed the full amount it was improperly charged," the statement said.
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