WASHINGTON—A retired Army Reserve officer complained to the Pentagon's fraud hot line last year that the Defense Department had overpaid for kitchen appliances, paying $1,000 for popcorn makers and toasters and $5,500 for a deep-fat fryer that cost other government agencies $1,919.
Although he provided a four-page spreadsheet showing 135 cases of higher prices, the Defense Department dismissed his tip without checking with him.
"We've got an agency that is not doing its job of being a watchdog for the taxpayers," said U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
Documents acquired by Knight Ridder under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the retired officer, Paul Fellencer Sr., tried to blow the whistle on as much as $200 million in what he called wasteful spending.
At issue is a multibillion-dollar Pentagon purchasing program that uses middlemen who set their own prices, instead of buying directly from manufacturers or going out for competitive bids.
Called the prime vendor program, it was the object of a Knight Ridder investigation that found that the Pentagon had paid prime vendors higher prices for 102 of 122 pieces of food equipment than the government did to contractors outside the system. For example, Knight Ridder found that the Pentagon had paid $20 apiece for ice cube trays that retail for less than a dollar.
Last year, the Pentagon's waste and fraud hot line received four tips complaining about the prime vendor program. One was from Fellencer, who documented Defense Department purchases in a spreadsheet complete with stock numbers and purchase orders. It showed that the Pentagon had spent 39 percent more using prime vendors, compared with buying the items through the civilian General Services Administration. The data were provided to officials at the hot line.
Pentagon investigators never called Fellencer. They spent a total of eight hours investigating his tip, talked to the officials responsible for the program and dismissed the tip as "unsubstantiated," the documents obtained by Knight Ridder show.
"They never did anything; not a whisper from them," Fellencer, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, told Knight Ridder. "It's just typical. I'm just so frustrated."
According to Diana Stewart, a Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman, investigators didn't need to contact Fellencer because his letter and spreadsheets "provided adequate information for the examining official to conduct the review and investigation of the complaint."
Stewart defended the agency's inquiry. She said a Defense Logistics Agency investigator found that prime vendors were charging reasonable prices most of the time "based on interviews with the food service-equipment prime vendor team and his own evaluation of a statistically valid sample of food service-equipment item prices."
The Defense Department touts the program as one of its "best practices" and credits it with timely deliveries that have eliminated the need for expensive inventories and warehousing.
Fellencer's spreadsheet included the following:
_An April 2004 purchase of two deep-fat fryers for $5,501.20 apiece; the same item was on the General Services Administration price list for $1,919.
_A December 2003 purchase of an electric waffle iron for $1,781.90, compared with the GSA price of $655.96.
_A January 2004 purchase of a $1,033 popcorn maker that could have been bought for $768.95.
_Four toasters bought in September 2003 for $1,025 apiece that other federal agencies were buying for $790.60.
Fellencer, who's the president of the Eagle Marketing Group of Houston, told the hot line he thought that overall the prime vendor program "involves as much as $200 million in misspent money."
Other tips to the fraud hot line involved allegations that prime vendors substituted cheaper materials than the ones they'd been paid for and that Defense Logistics Agency officials in South Korea were receiving gifts of food, drink and visits by "juicy girls," an expression for female bar companions. Those complaints either were called unsubstantiated or sent to other agencies for criminal investigation.
On Tuesday, food service-equipment industry leaders—many of them unhappy with the prime vendor program—are slated to meet with Defense Logistics Agency officials in Philadelphia to discuss the future of the system.
Jones said the issue would be raised in a second hearing in the House of Representatives in February or March.
"This cannot continue and should not continue," he said.
Top Defense Logistics Agency officials have told vendors such as Charles Jones of Columbia, S.C., who with Fellencer pushed the hardest for an investigation, that managers in charge of the program in Philadelphia have been reassigned or dismissed.
Agency spokeswoman Stewart declined to comment about personnel changes.
Keith Ashdown, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said the Pentagon seemed to be ignoring serious complaints.
"As a watchdog, they have rolled over and played dead," Ashdown said Monday. "They may have the bark of a German shepherd but they have a bite of a timid Chihuahua."
To read more about this program and to read the spreadsheet given to the government, go to the Knight Ridder Washington bureau's Web site, at www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/13133185.htm.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060123 PENTAGON spend
Need to map