US workers cite abuses; Fuel for Reagan war on waste

Large numbers of federal employees observe fraud, waste, and mismanagement in their agencies. But relatively few "blow the whistle," because they don't think anything will be done about it.

This is the preliminary finding of the federal Merit Systems Protection Board in a report sure to give President Reagan ammunition in his fight to cut the cost of big government.

The board, created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, recently polled 13,000 employees in 15 federal agencies about incidents of misconduct they had observed. Of the 8,600 who replied, 45 percent claimed to have personally observed or obtained direct evidence of wasteful or illegal activity within the past year. One in 10 said the activity involved more than $100,000.

Abuses cited include outright stealing of federal funds and property, making federal payments to ineligible recipients, and giving unfair advantages to government contractors.

Less than one-third of these people, however, reported the incidents to a superior or special reporting agency designed to protect "whistle-blowers." Of these, 53 percent said they thought "nothing would be done," 20 percent said they thought "nothing could be done," and 19 percent said they hesitated because of fear of reprisal.

In announcing the Merit System Protection Board's findings April 15, board chairwoman Ruth Prokop said, "We have institutional problems. Until you change top management's attitude toward whistle-blowing, you're not going to correct the problem [of failure to report waste and fraud]. That's the message here."

Authors of the board's preliminary report concede that it does not account for overlapping observations by employees or the fact that many may simply have been disgruntled because of pay level reductions or personal problems with supervisors.

"We are dealing with multiple observations," said Patricia Mathis, who directed the merit board's study. "We clearly are touching on an area where individual social, economic, and political values may be coming to bear."

But the merit board's final report (due in June) is sure to stir further activity in Washington in any case. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware calls the situation "sad and inexcusable." He will soon convene hearings before the senate's Government Operations Committee, which he chairs.

President Reagan recently appointed a White House council on integrity and efficiency in government, to be led by Attorney General William French Smith, with the aim of ferreting out the $50 billion in waste and fraud the administra tion claims exists.

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