GAO: 'Jaws of Life,' Tractors, Laptops Went Missing
"Washington Watchdogs," a periodic feature of the Post's Investigations blog, looks at the findings of the federal government's official investigators.
Millions of dollars in equipment purchased by the Indian Health Service, including all-terrain vehicles and tractors, laptop computers and digital cameras, have been lost or stolen, according to a report released today by the Government Accountability Office.
The Rockville, Md.-based Indian Health Service, which employs about 15,500 people and receives about $3.2 billion in federal funding per year, operates under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It provides medical services to 562 federally recognized tribes of American Indians and Alaska natives, representing about 1.9 million people.
The Government Accountability Office began investigating the agency a year ago after a whistleblower, identified only as a "cognizant property official," called a government watchdog hotline. The official alleged that employees could not find 1,180 computers, cameras and other items valued at about $1.8 million.
The whistleblower also claimed that superiors routinely "wrote off" the purchase of expensive equipment to avoid "holding anyone financially liable," the report said.
After conducting an audit of property records from 2004 to 2007, investigators said they identified about 5,000 missing or stolen items throughout the agency's headquarters and 12 regional offices scattered across the country. The missing items are valued at roughly $15.8 million.
Indian Health Service officials objected to many of the report's findings, saying that most of the items were not lost but temporarily misplaced, partly because of a new inventory system implemented in 2005. Officials also said that many of the items that were discarded were between 15 and 35 years old, well beyond their shelf life.
But investigators pointed to a number of "egregious" errors, including the purchase of thousands of dollars in brand-new computers found "collecting dust in a storeroom;" a yard sale by government workers in 2005 in Schurz, Nevada, which resulted in 17 computers being given away for free; the theft of a desktop computer in 2007 from a New Mexico hospital that contained a database of 849 uranium miners, their social security numbers and medical histories; and the creation of fake purchasing documents to purposely mislead auditors.
Investigators also found one instance where $700,000 worth of IT equipment had to be thrown away because it was damaged by "bat dung."
Jacqueline L. Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonpartisan group in Washington that monitors federal Indian policies, said the loss of "critical" equipment in tribal lands further highlights shortages in those areas. She specifically pointed to several missing Jaws of Life equipment, which are used to help pull injured people from car and truck accidents.
"Car accidents are a leading killer in tribal country," she said. "I was a little shocked at how extensive some of the property loss was."
Democratic congressional leaders who received the report yesterday quickly pounced on the findings.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the report showed a "disservice to Native Americans who are so greatly in need of critical health care services and to whom the federal government has a special obligation." Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said the audit "proves to be yet another example of the Bush Administration's lack of commitment to addressing Indian health care."
Thomas W. Sweeney, a spokesman for the Indian Health Service, declined to comment on the report's findings beyond the agency's formal response.
By Derek Kravitz |
July 21, 2008; 2:55 PM ET
Previous: Trial Highlights Legal Battle Over Terror Suspects | Next: Armed Services Head: Air Force Needs Shake-Up
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: TerrifiedCitizen | July 22, 2008 12:01 AM
Posted by: SeenMuchWorse | July 23, 2008 4:52 PM