Politics & Policy

Hold the Phone

(Feverpitched/Dreamstime)
A White House electrician ran up a $1,550 bill on personal calls — and taxpayers covered the costs.

Taxpayers covered the cost when a White House electrician ran up a $1,550 bill making personal calls to the Dominican Republic from his government phone, according to public records from the General Services Administration.

And that’s just one example of “a ‘chronic problem’ of . . .  employees using government cell phones for personal use, although most of the calls are local,” an operations coordinator at the White House Service Center told a GSA agent, according to a June 4, 2014, report by the GSA’s Office of Inspector General.

The coordinator, whose name was redacted, “stated that [he or she] was given the impression that [White House Service Center] managers are reluctant to deal with policy violations because they do not want disgruntled workers on the White House complex.”

It’s unclear from the public records received by NRO how often the GSA’s government cell-phone program is misused or how much that misuse could cost taxpayers.

The GSA’s media office would not respond to specific questions by National Review Online, instead e-mailing: “The U.S. General Services Administration has policies that address the appropriate use of government resources and takes the misuse of government property very seriously. Appropriate action is taken if an employee is found to have violated the policies.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, says that — while it’s difficult to draw conclusions from a single, partially redacted investigation report – if such misuse is habitual, “they’re frittering away [taxpayer] money using government time and government resources, and they need to be held accountable.” Although the inspector general caught the misuse this time, Ellis says, the GSA also needs to get better at tracking waste and abuse on its own. 

The investigative report said that, as of May, the White House electrician with a penchant for international calls still hasn’t paid back the $1,550 racked up between January and July of 2013.

“In some sense, it’s a double waste of tax dollars,” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens against Government Waste. “There’s the initial misuse of federal property, the GSA cell phone, and then the amount of time and money required to conduct the investigation. It should never have happened, because this individual should never have made these calls.”

The report redacted all names of government employees, but it references a source who said that one worker, who in context appears to be the electrician, “had been abusing the GSA cell phone since [name redacted] became involved in the administration of the cell phone program around 2007.”

The unnamed source “stated that [the phone of an employee whose name is redacted] had been shut off on several occasions due to misuse. [Name redacted] has told [name redacted] multiple times that the phone is only for government use, and in December 2011 or 2012, [name redacted] told [name redacted] [that he or she] could not use the phone from outside the country.”

Though the names are omitted, a source who appears to be the electrician reportedly told investigators that “this was the first time anyone spoke” to him or her about policies regarding the use of government cell phones.

In the private sector, an employee who ran up a $1,550 phone bill would be told to repay the money or be fired, Schatz says. But “the process of firing federal employees is cumbersome, and it’s often easier simply to allow that person to continue working than taking the steps necessary to terminate their employment,” he says. “This is a relatively small example, but it’s part of a much larger problem with addressing employment matters in federal agencies as opposed to addressing them in the private sector.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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