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Another ‘Shared’ Aide Investigated

IG Said to Eye a Former Employee

House Inspector General James Cornell told a House committee on Wednesday that his office has uncovered a second “shared employee” who appears to have been improperly billing Member offices for expenses.

Cornell offered no clue to the identity of this person, and House Administration Committee staff said they have only been told that it is a “former employee.”

Cornell’s announcement was part of a broader IG report suggesting a range of steps to improve control over financial and information technology employees who work for multiple Congressional offices, and the committee’s leaders promised to implement many of the recommendations, though Members are still discussing which reforms to advance.

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) emphasized that he has “no intent to eliminate shared employees,” though he and ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) agreed on the need to increase oversight of this group of staff members.

The IG recommended issuing new guidelines for shared employees, training shared employees in the rules that apply to them, requiring shared employees to disclose their outside earnings even if they would not normally be required to do so and regularly updating Members on whom else their shared employees are working for.

Over the past decade, Congress has seen a dramatic increase in the number of offices using shared employees to handle bookkeeping and technical support. There are now about two dozen financial staffers and another dozen or so information technology staffers in the House who function essentially as independent contractors.

Cornell told the committee on Wednesday that these shared employees earn an average of $132,000 a year, while comparable employees working in the Chief Administrative Officer’s office earn about $68,000.

The IG first began looking into shared employees after discovering that Laura Flores, serving as an office manager for three Congressional offices, had billed the offices for reimbursement of supplies and subscriptions that she had not purchased. She also presented bills for reimbursement to multiple offices. Flores pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of wire fraud and was sentenced to six months in prison.

In his testimony Wednesday, Cornell referenced the Flores case, and also said, “In another ongoing investigation, we found a second financial administrator who was paid for thousands of dollars of improper expense reimbursements and bonuses that were self-approved and resulted in improper payments.”

Cornell also suggested that other shared employees are violating House rules — and in some cases federal law — by taking sensitive financial materials out of the Capitol complex to work from their home offices, passing work from an individual Congressional office on to another worker who is not on the payroll of that office, storing House documents in off-site locations and using their access to Congressional offices to market outside services to Member offices.

Committee members were broadly supportive of proposals offered by Cornell — and seconded by CAO Dan Beard — to develop written guidance to Members and staff regarding the rules for shared employees and to provide more information to Members about how shared employees operate.

But some of the more dramatic suggestions may be harder for the committee to implement. For instance, one staff member said that setting new financial disclosure requirements for shared employees that are more stringent than other House employees may require a change in House rules and a rewrite of the House Ethics Manual.

Republicans also raised concerns about the suggestion by Beard and Cornell that the CAO’s office could begin providing bookkeeping and technical support services as an option to Members in lieu of the shared employees.

Cornell said one of the “potential solutions” the IG has explored would be “to develop a centralized pool of employees within the financial realm and IT to provide comparable services. We think there is a lot of merit to exploring that.”

But Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that if these services were offered by the CAO’s office, he would not use them, because he believes the CAO’s office has become a partisan position, and he suspects Republicans would get worse service than Democrats.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) also warned that creating a centralized pool of staffers may not ultimately save the House any money, because even if the staffers were less expensive, their pay would still come out of each Member’s office budget. That money would simply be spent on other things unless the CAO would propose to lower Members’ office budgets, which Beard did not suggest.

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