Dime-store losses


Imagine you own a race horse worth, say, $100,000. If he gets a cold or a stiff leg,
you're going to call the vet. You'll spend thousands of dollars and whatever time it takes
to get him fixed up and back on the track.

On the other hand, if your dime-store goldfish starts swimming on its side, you toss it
down the hopper.

In both cases, the effort and expenditure are proportionate to the payback. Or ought to

This came to mind in reading the stern-toned report from the General Accounting Office
detailing its investigation of telephone management at the Agriculture Department. At the
time, the umpteenth goldfish on our kitchen desk had just croaked.

There's waste, fraud and abuse going on with USDA phones for sure, but it's close to
the dime-store goldfish category.

I don't know how much GAO spent conducting that investigation, but I'll bet it was a
million bucks. And what did they find? Well, a few knuckleheads at headquarters were
calling those pay-per-minute 1-900 sex and chitchat hotlines. Federal prison inmates
somehow managed to get long-distance calls billed to USDA, although a contractor ate 96
percent of the fraudulent charges and Ag is going after the remaining $2,000.

In all, telephone billing errors and abuse "could be costing the department
thousands of dollars a month," the GAO reported.


Agriculture is a big department. It spends $50 million per year on commercial telephone
services. Not that anyone should want to waste a few thousand dollars a month, but in the
grand scheme of things, this is really a pittance. There's hardly an epidemic of phone
fraud at USDA.

Anne F. Thomson Reed, the deputy assistant secretary for administration, is a
businesslike executive not known for laxity. She's the one who has to deal with this GAO
revelation. Having someone like her spend an inordinate time chasing $2,000 in phone bill
errors--now that would be a waste.

The real question here is why the machinery of congressional oversight and
report-making is gearing up for so little payback. Especially when Comptroller General
Charles Bowsher is warning that GAO won't be able to do its job if its budget is cut any

No doubt Ag needs better phone controls. In response to this and other GAO reports, the
department is piloting a system to eliminate the stacks of paper telephone bills that no
one has time to review.

But GAO should concentrate on areas that will yield important payback, and not on
performing major surgery on goldfish.

Which means members of Congress who order up these reports ought to think twice about
how they're spending the public's money. Then again, what else is new?

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