Porn surf­ing on tax­payer’s dime pro­lific at sci­ence foun­da­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JIM MCELHATTON

Em­ployee mis­con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions, of­ten in­volv­ing work­ers ac­cess­ing pornog­ra­phy from their gov­ern­ment com­put­ers, grew six­fold last year in­side the tax­payer-funded foun­da­tion that doles out bil­lions of dol­lars of sci­en­tific re­search grants, ac­cord­ing to bud­get doc­u­ments and other records ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Times.

The prob­lems at the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) were so per­va­sive they swamped the agency’s in­spec­tor gen­eral and forced the in­ter­nal watch­dog to cut back on its pri­mary mis­sion of in­ves­ti­gat­ing grant fraud and re­cov­er­ing mis­spent tax dol­lars.

“To man­age this dra­matic in­crease without an in­crease in staff re­quired us to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce our ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate grant fraud,” the in­spec­tor gen­eral re­cently told Congress in a bud­get re­quest. “We an­tic­i­pate a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in in­ves­tiga­tive re­cov­er­ies and pros­e­cu­tions in com­ing years as a di­rect re­sult.”

The bud­get re­quest doesn’t state the na­ture or num­ber of the mis­con­duct cases, but records ob­tained by The Times through the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act laid bare the ex­tent of the well-pub­li­cized porn prob­lem in­side the govern­ment­backed foun­da­tion.

For in­stance, one se­nior ex­ec­u­tive spent at least 331 days looking at pornog­ra­phy on his gov­ern­ment com­puter and chat­ting on­line with nude or par­tially clad women without be­ing de­tected, the records show.

When fi­nally caught, the NSF of­fi­cial re­tired. He even of­fered, among other explanations, a hu­man­i­tar­ian de­fense, sug­gest­ing that he fre­quented the porn sites to pro­vide a liv­ing to the poor over­seas women. In­ves­ti­ga­tors put the cost to tax­pay­ers of the se­nior of­fi­cial’s porn surf­ing at

be­tween $13,800 and about $58,000.

“He ex­plained that th­ese young women are from poor coun­tries and need to make money to help their par­ents and this site helps them do that,” in­ves­ti­ga­tors wrote in a memo.

The in­de­pen­dent foun­da­tion, funded by tax­pay­ers to the tune of $6 bil­lion in 2008, is tasked with hand­ing out sci­en­tific grants to colleges, uni­ver­si­ties and re­search in­sti­tu­tions na­tion­wide. The projects it funds range from map­ping the genome of the po­tato to ex­plor­ing outer space with pow­er­ful new tele­scopes. It has a to­tal of 1,200 ca­reer em­ploy­ees.

Re­cent bud­get doc­u­ments for the in­spec­tor gen­eral cite a “6fold in­crease in em­ployee mis­con­duct cases and as­so­ci­ated proac­tive man­age­ment im­pli­ca­tion re­port ac­tiv­i­ties.” The doc­u­ment doesn’t say how many cases were in­volved in the in­crease, and of­fi­cials could not im­me­di­ately pro­vide a fig­ure.

Doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Times through an open records re­quest show the foun­da­tion’s in­spec­tor gen­eral closed 10 em- ployee mis­con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions last year, up from just three in 2006. There were seven cases in 2007. Of the 10 cases closed last year, seven in­volved on­line pornog­ra­phy, records show. How­ever, those fig­ures don’t in­clude pend­ing cases.

Les­lie Paige, a spokes­woman for the non­par­ti­san watch­dog Cit­i­zens Against Gov­ern­ment Waste, called the sit­u­a­tion “in­ex­cus­able.”

“What kind of over­sight is there when they have to shift peo­ple from looking at grant fraud to watch for peo­ple looking at pornog­ra­phy?” she said.

Foun­da­tion spokes­woman Dana Topousis said of­fi­cials have en­acted more rig­or­ous com­puter train­ing and tight­ened con­trols to fil­ter out in­ap­pro­pri­ate In­ter­net ad­dresses from the sites em­ploy­ees can ac­cess from their work com­put­ers.

Deputy In­spec­tor Gen­eral Tim Cross said de­spite the of­fice’s bud­get re­quest, the foun­da­tion ap­pears to have fixed the sys­tem­atic prob­lems that al­lowed work­ers to look at pornog­ra­phy on the job.

He said the of­fice’s 2010 bud­get re­quest was writ­ten well in ad­vance and that, at the time, “we were con­sumed with a lot of th­ese cases.”

“The agency has done a lot to ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing is­sues in terms of get­ting out the mes­sage it’s not to be done and mak­ing tech­no­log­i­cal changes,” he said.

The foun­da­tion’s in­spec­tor gen­eral un­cov­ers sci­en­tific mis­con­duct that can force the re­turn of mis­used grant money to the gov­ern­ment but told Congress it was di­verted from that mis­sion by the porn cases.

The of­fice was un­able to im­me­di­ately pro­vide an es­ti­mate of how much money the pro­jected de­cline in in­ves­tiga­tive re­cov­er­ies will cost tax­pay­ers. Ac­cord­ing to con­gres­sional re­ports, over­all in­ves­tiga­tive re­cov­er­ies by the watch­dog agency to­taled more than $2 mil­lion for the year end­ing March 31.

The pornog­ra­phy prob­lem came to light ear­lier this year, when the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice pub­lished short sum­maries of sev­eral re­cent cases in a semi­an­nual re­port to Congress.

The re­port caught the at­ten­tion of Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley of Iowa, rank­ing Repub­li­can on the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, who launched an in­quiry that gen­er­ated un­wanted me­dia at­ten­tion on the on­line ac­tiv­i­ties of em­ploy­ees at the foun­da­tion.

The newly ob­tained docu- ments pro­vide fresh ev­i­dence that the prob­lem wasn’t just an em­bar­rass­ment: It was ex­pen­sive and of­ten went un­de­tected for long pe­ri­ods of time.

The names of all of the em­ploy­ees tar­geted in the pornog­ra­phy cases were redacted from the more than 120 pages of in­ves­tiga­tive doc­u­ments re­leased to The Times. Names were with­held be­cause none of the em­ploy­ees was sub­ject to crim­i­nal prose­cu­tion, re­cent civil court action or de­bar­ment.

The doc­u­ments don’t in­clude cases that the foun­da­tion ex­am­ined in­ter­nally without the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s in­volve­ment.

One foun­da­tion em­ployee paid an un­spec­i­fied sum last year af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that dur­ing a three-week pe­riod in June 2008, the worker pe­rused hun­dreds of porno­graphic Web sites dur­ing work hours. That em­ployee re­ceived a 10-day sus­pen­sion.

In an of­fi­cial no­tice of the de­ci­sion, the foun­da­tion called the con­duct “un­pro­fes­sional and un­ac­cept­able,” but also noted the em­ployee’s work his­tory and lack of any pre­vi­ous dis­ci­plinary ac­tions.

As for the un­named “se­nior ex­ec­u­tive” who spent at least 331 days looking at pornogra- phy at work, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said his pro­cliv­ity for pornog­ra­phy was com­mon knowl­edge among sev­eral co-work­ers.

“At the same time, em­ploy­ees were gen­er­ally re­luc­tant to make any of­fi­cial re­port or com­plaint be­cause the mis­con­duct in­volved a se­nior staff mem­ber and em­ploy­ees feared that they would suf­fer in some form of com­plain­ing,” the in­ves­ti­ga­tors later wrote in a sum­mary of the case.

An­other em­ployee in a dif­fer­ent case was caught with hun­dreds of pic­tures, videos and even Pow­erPoint slide shows con­tain­ing pornog­ra­phy. Asked by an in­ves­ti­ga­tor whether he had com­pleted any gov­ern­ment work on a day when a sig­nif­i­cant amount of pornog­ra­phy was down­loaded, the em­ployee re­sponded, “Um, I can’t re­mem­ber,” ac­cord­ing to records.

The em­ployee also said that friends sent him the porno­graphic files, that he never planned on view­ing them and that he never got around to delet­ing the files, a claim one of­fi­cial later called “sim­ply not be­liev­able.”

Sus­pended for 10 days, the em­ployee un­suc­cess­fully ap­pealed the de­ci­sion af­ter ar­gu­ing that it was too harsh.

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