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Investigators Probe Allegations of Cronyism, Mismanagement at Government Publishing Office

If the Senate confirms President Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, he will have to grapple with accusations of high-level corruption.

If confirmed by the Senate, Robert Tapella, the former public printer whom President Trump last June nominated to return to the helm of the Government Publishing Office, would preside over an agency that is currently subject to probes of multiple allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

Documents obtained by Government Executive and interviews with current and former employees raise allegations that paint an unflattering portrait of the top circle of executives under the leadership of former Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks, who ran GPO from 2013 to 2017.

The accusations involve the improper hiring of friends and relatives, use of government vehicles for personal business, improper sexual relationships and flawed acquisition practices.

The array of allegations are under investigation by both the GPO’s inspector general and by the House and Senate oversight committees, Government Executive has learned.

The press spokesman for the 157-year-old agency declined to comment, referring queries to IG Melinda Miguel. She confirmed that multiple probes are underway, and told Government Executive in early December that, after six months on the job, she will depart in January to accept an appointment from Governor-elect Ron DeSantis to be the inspector general for her home state of Florida. She pledged to finish her remaining work and “not leave GPO without rigorous oversight.”

Tapella, currently an oversight professional staff member on the House Administration Committee, declined a request for comment. But according to Miguel, he promised the IG he would cooperate in untangling an array of issues at the agency.

An Array of Accusations

In November, Kevin Ayers, vice president of Local 121 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents employees at GPO, began circulating a petition on urging the Senate to confirm Tapella. “He is honest and trustworthy and always treated employees with respect,” Ayers wrote in the petition, addressed to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a series of other lawmakers and congressional staffers. Klobuchar is a member of the Joint Printing Committee. “He is willing to come in and clean up the toxic work environment plagued by corruption, cronyism and inept management.”

That latter reference is to accusations that include an allegation referred to the inspector general that Vance-Cooks used government cars for personal transportation.

Vance-Cooks, now with Grant Thornton LLP, declined to be interviewed but has told the IG she will cooperate “to clear her name,” Miguel told Government Executive. When Vance-Cooks left GPO in November 2017, Rep. Brady called her “a true public servant and excellent public administrator. She made GPO stronger, more financially sound, and a great place to work.” Former GPO General Counsel Drew Spalding, who left the agency in January 2017, told Government Executive, “I believed, and still believe, that Ms. Vance-Cooks was very highly respected and regarded.”

Also under fire is former deputy GPO Director James Bradley, who became acting GPO director in November 2017 after Vance-Cooks retired. Bradley has been the subject of multiple IG probes regarding allegations of misconduct. The latest, an interim investigation conducted from December 2017 to March 2018, found Bradley sent emails to employees with “sexually explicit messages.”

“The investigation revealed that while allegations of sexual harassment were not substantiated,”  then-GPO inspector general Michael Raponi wrote to lawmakers, “evidence does demonstrate a pattern of poor judgment and favoritism.” He said at the time that the investigation would continue.

Bradley, who retired in March, declined to speak with Government Executive, noting that the IG investigation is still underway.

Also in for criticism are former acting Deputy Director Andrew Sherman, now retired, and Chief Administrative Officer Herb Jackson, now acting deputy director. According to a June 21, 2018, interim IG report obtained by Government Executive, the two men “orchestrated a scheme to bypass the competitive hiring process and engaged in cronyism, thereby betraying the public trust.”

The interim IG report alleges they violated federal statutes, regulations and GPO directives in hiring two unauthorized employees from 2014 to 2018, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $437,000. One was Jackson’s college-age son who came on as an intern. Sherman, as Jackson’s boss, didn’t take action promptly, but eventually reorganized internal reporting relationships so the son could stay, according to the report.

Separately, Sherman was found by the IG to have arranged for a temporary Schedule C appointment in his office of an employee communications specialist. She then worked for four years under a “personal services contract.”

The result of the two cases, wrote acting IG Stephen Roy, was a “diminution of respect for GPO management.”

Sherman retired in June, and declined to comment to Government Executive on the record. Jackson could not be reached for comment.

Workplace Tensions

Like many agencies under the Trump administration, management at the 1,900-employee GPO is experiencing significant tensions with its union workforce. Complaints from leaders of the agency’s 12 unions range from stalled contract negotiations to racial tension to insufficient toilet paper in the restrooms.

Ayers, the vice president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 121, told Government Executive his union has been waiting more than a year for a counteroffer on a wage question. Nate Nelson, national representative for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2876, which also represents workers at GPO, says he has filed complaints on behalf of employees alleging racial tensions and various forms of retaliation. “Morale is at an all-time low, and the employees don’t have faith that any manager will do the right thing,” he told Government Executive. “They don’t follow policy, and [congressional] oversight so far is not effective.”

GPO’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office investigated the agency’s Acquisition Services division and found “significant strain that is impacting employees and creating additional risk for the GPO,” according to an October 2018 report obtained by Government Executive. Agency leaders, it added, are “not consistently modeling supportive workplace behaviors. Leadership lacks self-regulation and recognition that emotional intelligence has plenty of room for improvement.”

Increased Oversight

Whether Tapella wins confirmation or not, one thing that seems certain is heightened oversight by a new inspector general and by Congress. IG Miguel, concerned about rumors that her office leaked sensitive documents, told Government Executive she has tapped an outsider—a special agent at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration—to probe the allegations. She declared that her office released its interim report alleging misconduct by Sherman and Jackson only to proper recipients, including Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who lead the Joint Printing Committee.

Blunt, his communications director Katie Boyd said, “takes the allegations of misconduct at the Government Publishing Office seriously. The committee has held 19 oversight meetings with GPO since Sen. Blunt became chairman of the Rules Committee in April of this year. The committee has sought additional information regarding these allegations and will remain actively engaged in oversight.”

On the House side, Republican staffer Courtney Parella said the House Administration Committee is looking into the alleged problems at GPO.

Peter Whippy, a Democratic staffer on that panel, echoed that assessment, saying, “Democrats plan to implement a vigorous oversight regime for GPO in the 116th Congress.”

Photo: Geraldshields11, Wikimedia Commons