Last September, investigative reporter Peter Byrne published an e-book titled Going Postal: U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband sells post office to his friends cheap.
Project Censored highlighted Byrne’s investigative reports and interviewed him on The Project Censored Show on KPFA last fall, as did The East Bay Express in Oakland, CA.
Except for the Los Angeles Times and the Huffington Post, the major corporate media outlets ignored Byrne’s shocking revelations about how CBRE, a real estate firm chaired by the husband of the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is profiting from selling post offices at under fair market values to its own business partners.
But the Inspector General of the United States Postal Service is taking Byrne’s findings seriously; he has mounted an investigation of the CBRE contract. Recently, the Washington Post reported the Inspector General’s initial finding that the CBRE contract is so infected by conflicts of interest that it should be scrapped.
On March 14, the Daily Cal (the student newspaper at UC Berkeley) published an op-ed by Tom Samra, the Postal Service executive in charge of the CBRE contract. Presumably, the Postal Service public relations flacks are mounting a campaign to try and buff up the once-beloved agency’s now-tarnished public image. People all over the country are incensed by the sale of their local post offices to boutique and restaurant developers: And Berkeley, CA is the epicenter of the fight to roll back the privatization of the postal Commons.
It is remarkable that the Postal Service is sending Mr. Samra into the front lines to wage this public relations battle. As Byrne details in Going Postal, Mr. Samra and employees of the facilities division which he operates are beset by numerous ethical challenges.
Here is the chapter from Going Postal that reveals the ethical problems among the highest ranking Postal Service bureaucrats, with some excruciating details about how Mr. Samra and his colleagues have been using their federally-issued credit cards. –Project Censored
Hunger Games at L’Enfant Plaza
Executives treat post office as personal bank
By Peter Byrne
In 1970, Congress transformed the Postal Service into a quasi-public corporation funded by earned revenue and not by tax dollars. The service’s presidentially appointed governors are a mix of corporate executives and politicians. Each part-time board member is paid a salary of $30,000 for attending periodic meetings and voting on policy issues.
But there must be other benefits to the job, or so thought Governor Alan Kessler, who resigned from the board in 2011 after the post office’s inspector general reported that he had pressured postal officials to favor a real estate deal involving Douglas J. Band, a top advisor to former President Bill Clinton. Band had asked Kessler to intercede with Facilities Director Tom Samra to push forward a $12 million land purchase in Florida. Samra resisted Kessler’s bullying, and the deal was not consummated. The inspector general severely criticized Chief Counsel Mary Ann Gibbons for allowing Kessler to lobby officials when she knew that he was violating a federal statute prohibiting the use of public office for private gain.
Considerations of influence-peddling aside, one of the main jobs of the postal governors is to set the salaries and bonuses awarded to the 37 headquarters executives that command the ship of state at L’Enfant Plaza:
-Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahue banked $512,000 in 2012, while bemoaning the deficit and drastically cutting the workforce.
-Chief Information Officer Ellis Burgoyne was paid $508,688 during 2011, despite taking an extended leave of “over 90 days” in that year.
-For overseeing a multi-billion dollar budget bust, Chief Financial Officer Joseph Corbett only earned $330,000 last year.
-With benefits, the average postal worker makes $75,000.
Samra & Company
The head of the Facilities Division, Tom Samra, is responsible for managing the Postal Service’s $85 billion real estate portfolio. He supervises employees who in turn supervise the outside contractors who do much of the division’s work: negotiating real estate sales, leasing, maintenance, financial accounting, and new construction. Important management tasks have long been contracted out to the engineering firm, Parsons Corporation, and to commercial real estate firms, primarily Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc. and CBRE.
Public records obtained under FOIA reveal that Samra is extremely wealthy for a government bureaucrat who earns a $198,000 salary. His Public Financial Disclosure Report for 2011 values his personal worth at between $38 million and $98 million. Most of his wealth is invested in cash, corporate stocks, and Vanguard funds, although he also disclosed an interest in several real estate ventures, including a shopping center near his modest home in Vienna, Virginia.
But being a multimillionaire has not stopped Samra for billing the public for every bottle of water he drinks on his extensive travels. Between June 2006 and February 2013, he racked up expenses of $268,326 hopping from city to city signing off on real estate deals.
-In October 2007, Samra expensed a $7,788 round-trip airfare from Washington D.C. to Paris and charged $141 for a “dinner with Swiss executive.”
-In August 2008, the Postal Service paid $7,202 for Samra’s airfare to Zürich, Switzerland to attend a conference sponsored by the Institute of Philippine Real Estate Consultants. The public picked up his meals, taxis rides, hotel stay, and the cost of a side trip to Bern, Switzerland, for reasons not explained in his expense report.
-In November 2007, he charged the government for traveling to Orlando, Florida to attend a bicycle race with his wife. The postal service paid $102 for Samra’s and his wife’s dinner the evening before he dinged stamp-buyers a mere $14.91 for snacking at the Kennedy Center.
-In December 2012, Samra charged $44.85 for “meeting to discuss CBRE contract.” But the FOIA copy of his expense report redacts the identity of the individual with whom he met. On several occasions, Samra charged the government for meetings with persons whose names were later redacted from his expense reports. The Chief Counsel for the Postal Service wrote that these names were censored because the public’s interest in knowing the identity of these individuals is “outweighed by the privacy interests of the individuals involved.”
While most of Samra’s expenses appear to be for legitimate government business (first class air travel to Paris and Switzerland notwithstanding), his subordinates treated their government-issued credit cards as free cash. Here are selected items from a spreadsheet, obtained under FOIA, that summarize expense reports submitted by Facilities Division executives during 2006-2010. (The expenses were primarily attributed to “meetings and conferences”):
-Eileen Vaughn works at L’Enfant Plaza as an Industry Engagement Specialist, salaried at $85,900. She (and, hopefully, her coworkers) ate up $810 at Au Bon Pain Café over three days. Then she (and they?) enjoyed a $1,055 meal at an exclusive restaurant, Legal Seafoods. She charged $412 for a lunch at Mary’s Café. And two days later, $1,249 at Famous Dave’s, a barbecue joint.
-Vaughn went on to charge $548 to Simple Truths LLC, an online purveyor of inspirational books and gifts, followed by $67 at Toys R Us for “supplies.”
-Hungry again, it was back to Famous Dave’s for barbecue worth $1,249, followed a few weeks later by another chow down at Dave’s for $1,386.
-A five-star restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, called Proof of the Pudding catered a $2,656 meal, which Vaughn charged to the public.
-Lori A. Zarcone whipped out her Postal Service charge card at Paradise Ice Cream ($400), Circuit City ($266), Marriot Detroit Pontiac hotel ($2,040), and the ever popular, Famous Dave’s ($1,429).
-Marva Stewart likes the Hampton Inn Sugarloaf ($1,706), Adams Mark Hotels ($3,356), and Bear Rock Café ($388).
-Rose Latourne bought a stay at Marriot Hotels Gwinnett for $3,622.
-Angie Mitchell likes Honeybaked Ham ($216) and Bistro Boudin ($721).
-And the Golden Fleece Award for the New Millennium goes to Mitchell for charging the public $4,066 for “supplies” at GCCgiftcertificates.com.
The culture of credit card abuse has long infected the top floors at L’Enfant Plaza. In February, 2011, the inspector general reported that within a two-year period, fully one-third of Postal Service executives with high-limit credit cards had “misused their government travel card by purchasing personal items and taking cash advances unrelated to official travel.”
Many executives submitted duplicate claims for travel reimbursement, including one reimbursement of $10,114 for a flight that was never taken. And most remarkably, “three employees purchased airfare tickets, including tickets to Spain and Italy, for friends and family. One employee purchased an Apple computer and paid his mortgage. One employee used his government issued travel card more than 50 times at adult entertainment establishments.” The agency also failed to cancel government credit cards worth $37 million that had been issued to thousands of former and deceased employees.
No indictments resulted from this audit. But a reasonable person must ask: If L’Enfant Plaza executives help themselves so casually to public money for expensive dinners, gift certificates, pornography, computers, and home mortgages, how responsible are they likely to be when overseeing real estate and consulting contracts? This investigation shows that the conflicts of interest and related problems with the CBRE contract could only have occurred with the full knowledge and complicity of top leadership at the Postal Service. Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer, declined to comment on these expenses. Samra did not return repeated telephone calls and emails requesting comment.