A federal agency that provides mediation services between companies and unions spent $3,867 on an ice maker, $303 for a Sears coffee pot and $24 each for desk calendars that Staples sells every day for $7.99.
Those were among hundreds on a list of the 220-employee Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service expenses obtained by the Washington Examiner under the Freedom of Information Act for 2012 and 2013.
The purchases - made with government credit cards - read like something out of the TV sitcom "The Office," whose characters spent more time on administrative tasks and self-pampering than they did actually conducting any sort of business.
The lengthy list includes lots of practical office items, but there are also some unexpected expenditures like the paintings of 17 past FMCS managers that hang on walls throughout the office. The agency spent $2,402 in 2013 because of an "additional request for portrait retouching for Scot Beckenbaugh," an FMCS deputy who was acting director for one year.
"They were actual artwork portraits," said former FMCS employee Tanya Pelcher-Herring. "These people got their portraits done like they were reigning kings or something. One portrait of a former director included his dog. In my 20 plus years of federal service, I've never seen anything like it before."
The agency also paid $1,325 for five pairs of headphones, $625 for a "diversity video," and $1,700 each for multiple employees to attend a "Social Media in Government Conference."
Among the purchases uncovered were several associated with a "Hallway Improvement Project," spearheaded by an FMCS employee who is paid $153,000. A consultant was hired to design graphics to enliven the office's hallways, which were then made into posters, at a cost of $3,803.
Spokesman John Arnold, who managed the “hallway improvement project,” defended the spending, saying "FMCS purchase cards are used to purchase items for the Agency’s official business. The purchase card program was audited in FY 2013 by outside, independent auditors, who did not find any improper use of Agency funds. The FMCS also received a clean audit report for the program in FY 2014."
Whatever the auditors saw, the documents reviewed by the Examiner included $462 for "2 Veteran's Day posters and 1 FMCS black-and-white-picture framed" for one staffer's office.
FMCS has an office in Honolulu, where it paid $1,821 in March 2013 to dispose of furniture, and then spent $1,955 two months later to buy furniture.
The agency spent $5,256 on 2013 desk calendars, or $24 each if every FMCS employee got one. Staples advertises desk calendars for $7.99. It bought multiple fax machines at $475 each.
It reported paying $302.09 for a “New coffee pot” from Sears.
It paid for DirecTV at its office on K Street in Washington, which has about 80 employees and has its own private gym for FMCS employees, and even paid $980 for a "service call for FMCS Direct TV."
It paid $895 "for Suzanne Nichter's enrollment in the English Essentials: A Grammar Refresher course" and $735 "for Lakisha Steward to attend Listening and Memory Skills Development Course."
It paid $27,000 over 18 months to PR Newswire, a company that sends out press releases, even though the agency has three full-time press people.
It paid $2,550, for example, for "PR Newswire Release - Headlines: Two statements by FMCS Director George H. Cohen on United States Maritime Alliance and International Longshoremen's Association Labor Negotiations." The highest advertised price on PR Newswire's website is $399 per release.
It paid $900 a month for a take-home car for an employee and spent $13,000 at Flavors Catering.
FMCS IT staff paid $2,879 for a 3-year SSL certificate from a company that sells that product for $1,200. It spent $3,000 on Internet cables, enough to buy 430 10-foot cables.
FMCS employees paid $350 for laptop speakers, $723 per chair, and at least $2,000 a year giving certificates to employees congratulating them for having worked at FMCS for a certain number of years.