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Blowing the Whistle

07/20/03


Dan Drost doesn't truck much in shades of gray. He's an all or nothing kind of guy. Pungent opinions spew from the towering St. Ignatius High School graduate like lava from a volcano. Drost especially enjoys erupting about sports, politics and the machinations of a government agency so obscure that most Americans don't know it exists, let alone what it does: The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS).

When he's not padding barefoot around the white-carpeted two-story home he shares with his wife, Janice, and two overindulged cats in North Royalton's Devonshire Woods subdivision, or working as a statistician for out-of-town television and radio stations at Cleveland Cavaliers games, or sounding off on the sports cartoon Web site he runs with friends, Drost is a computer systems analyst in the Cleveland office of DFAS, as bureaucrats call the agency that handles payroll for the U.S. military and its retirees.

Most weekdays, the Air Force veteran packs his 6-foot-2-inch frame into a four-door green Chevy Malibu and makes the 24-mile drive downtown to the DFAS office at the new Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building, where he's one of 287 employees who process the Navy's payroll. Sometimes, for kicks, he listens to parts of a 41/2-hour Bruce Springsteen's Greatest Hits tape he made for himself. Badlands is his all-time favorite Springsteen anthem. Its chorus could be Drost's mantra:

"Badlands, you gotta live it every day,

Let the broken hearts stand

As the price you've gotta pay,

We'll keep pushin' till it's understood,

and these badlands start treating us good."

When Drost observes a bum call on the athletics field, he spews outrage on his Web site. Two years ago, when Drost believed he had spotted skullduggery at the government agency where he works, he sounded off about the issue to anyone who would listen - and many more who wouldn't. Despite assurances from Washington that all was in order when DFAS turned over payroll processing for military retirees and annuitants to a private contractor, Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), Drost was convinced the bidding that led to privatization of 650 government jobs in Cleveland and Denver was rigged.

Even though Drost's job wasn't among those affected by the switch, he bombarded friends, government officials and reporters with relentless phone calls and e-mails on the subject. His damn-the-torpedoes whistle-blowing campaign caught the interest of Cleveland Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, who persuaded the Defense Department's inspector general to investigate. In March, the inspector general confirmed that there were problems with the bidding and found that taxpayers would have saved $30 million if the work was kept in-house.

Springsteen would've been proud.

"It seemed obvious to me that taxpayers were getting ripped off," says Drost, 44, who believes DFAS officials deliberately tipped the tables toward the contractor to comply with a Bush administration mandate to privatize federal jobs.

Many of the jobs involved "customer" service: Answering phone calls and opening mail from retirees and annuitants, walking them through paperwork and troubleshooting for them. Others processed and input data into computers and made decisions on behalf of DFAS. Drost says he didn't know exactly how the bidding was botched or its full financial impact until the inspector general's report came out. He launched his crusade based on gut instinct and office scuttlebutt.

"I was not the brains behind this, more the heart and soul," Drost says. "I didn't figure out the mistake; the inspector general did. But I had the instinct on how to handle this."

Drost says what raised his suspicions about the contract was conversations with senior DFAS managers in Cleveland who couldn't publicly speak out about the contract for fear of losing their jobs. He says they feared DFAS leaders were determined to privatize the Cleveland jobs because the agency had decided against privatization in earlier bid competitions around the country and now feared trouble with the Bush administration if it didn't transfer some jobs to the private sector. What also aroused Drost's concerns were the resignations of high-ranking DFAS colleagues who went to work for the contractor before the government awarded the contract. In addition, he believed e-mails that superiors showed him indicated DFAS was so set on outsourcing that it wouldn't let a contractor fail.

"Lots of things made us wonder if something was fishy," Drost says. "It seemed so blatant."

The inspector general's office found the bidding was bungled by an independent contractor hired to evaluate bids, Alabama-based Mevatec Corp. The inspector general determined that Mevatec improperly added extra personnel costs to a bid submitted by the American Federation of Government Employees union, whose members previously handled the work at DFAS. Mevatec's miscalculation led it to decide that ACS could perform the job more cheaply than the government, so DFAS turned over the jobs to the non-union contractor.

DFAS spokesman Bryan Hubbard says all workers affected by the change were offered other DFAS posts, jobs with the contractor or buyouts. According to Hubbard, 176 employees who accepted early retirement from DFAS went to work for the contractor while also collecting government pensions.

Hubbard says his agency is pursuing remedies against Mevatec that are afforded under its contract with the company, but he says he cannot disclose them because they are of a "proprietary, contractual" nature. A spokesman for the company that purchased Mevatec refuses to comment on the issue.

DFAS has decided to keep the work with ACS, despite the inspector general's findings and a contract cancellation request from five local members of Congress: Kucinich, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Sherrod Brown, Marcy Kaptur and Steve LaTourette. Hubbard says that transferring the jobs back to the government would be a "significant undertaking" that would involve recruiting and hiring employees and "re-establishing processes" for doing the work turned over to the contractor.

Hubbard, who denies Drost's allegation that the error was a deliberate attempt to rig the bidding, says DFAS has retained the contract because it saved the government money, and DFAS is satisfied with the contractor's performance. He says DFAS paid ACS almost $5 million less than it anticipated in the contract's first year and that a recent Office of Personnel Management survey that showed customer satisfaction among the 2.5 million military retirees and their survivors served by DFAS rose 8 percent since ACS began processing benefits in January 2002.

The inspector general's report, however, notes that DFAS reviewers gave ACS deficient ratings for handling customer calls and account changes in February, March and April of 2002, and suggested that DFAS re-evaluate ACS' contract. "We believe it is the responsibility of DFAS to consider the results of this audit and ɠinclude a determination of why a re-competition should not be held," the report says.

Records obtained by The Plain Dealer show that the government agency's own reviewers continually gave ACS deficient ratings on its handling of the contract through early 2003 and repeatedly fined it for falling short of standards it was contractually obligated to meet, particularly for handling telephone calls and account changes. ACS has disputed those findings, and insists that DFAS reviewers aren't examining a representative sample of its work. It claims the reviewers aren't using correct tallies of incoming telephone calls and are judging it by an "incorrect definition" of appropriate response time to calls. It says it is working with DFAS to clarify the evaluation standards.

"ACS is currently engaged with senior management ɠin redefining contractually mandated performance requirements," says a February 11, 2003, letter that ACS contract manager Aileene Richardson Cottrell sent to the DFAS officer who reviews the company's performance. "Any decision regarding deficiencies should consider these on-going and mutually beneficial negotiations."

At a recent congressional hearing, DFAS Director Thomas Bloom said ACS' contract is renewable annually, and its performance is evaluated continuously.

"We do have the opportunity each year to decide whether we need and can or should renew the contract," Bloom told a House Government Reform subcommittee. "And we will look at that and do the economic analysis each and every year before going forward with a renewal."

DFAS' refusal to return the jobs promptly to the union after the inspector general vindicated Drost's hunch has only stoked his volcano of outrage. The union has said it may sue. Drost is a member of the union and recently lost a bid for chapter president.

"Tom Bloom should resign from office," Drost fumes. "His disloyalty to his employees is mind-boggling. At least you would think he would apologize to his Cleveland employees for costing them 500-plus jobs. Apparently that is not in his nature. Instead he would rather stonewall the whole process in an even stronger effort to bilk the taxpayers."

While the Bush administration insists that subjecting government jobs to competition from private contractors promotes efficiency and cuts costs no matter who ends up doing the work, Drost maintains it's all a way for Republicans to gut the predominantly Democratic government workers' unions and simultaneously line their corporate contributors' pockets.

Campaign contribution records compiled by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics bear out Drost's assertion that most corporations give the bulk of their campaign contributions to Republican candidates. However, ACS appears to be an exception to the rule. Seventy-four percent of donations from ACS' corporate political action committee went to Democrats last year, the group says. The company's top brass gave $14,000 to unsuccessful Texas Democratic Senate candidate Ron Kirk and only $1,000 to the GOP winner, John Cornyn. Drost, nonetheless, likes to compare the situation at his office with the no-bid contract awarded to Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co., to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. Halliburton's political committee gave 89 percent of its donations to Republicans.

"The Bush administration is a bunch of financial terrorists," Drost says. "The Bushies could care if they negatively affect lives of the middle class. It almost seems like by the time they finish in 2008, there will be an elite class and a minimum-wage class. I can think of no other phrase but financial terrorism as his cronies get closer to billionaire status at the expense of the middle class. Don't even get me going about the tax breaks."

Drost is one bureaucrat who doesn't talk as though he's covering his butt.

Drost's longtime friends say they're not surprised by his crusade. The Reverend Ben Jimenez, a pal from St. Ignatius who is associate pastor at St. Augustine Church on West 14th Street in Cleveland, says that Drost was more interested in sports than studying when they attended the elite Catholic school but took its "Men for Others" motto to heart.

"A lot of people think that motto means that you go out and make a lot of money and give it to the school," Jimenez says. "Dan has truly been a man for others, acting on his faith and stepping up for the sake of his fellow employees at great risk to himself. I am proud of him."

Another buddy, John Daley Jr. of Cuyahoga Falls, says that insulting federal employees is among the fastest ways to rile Drost. During a recent trip to the Outback Steakhouse in Fairlawn, the pair got into a shouting match after Daley complained that incompetent operators had fumbled his repeated telephone calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs about a benefits question.

"I said most government workers are inept. He took it personally," Daley says.

"We know each other's buttons and push them to have fun," says the telecommunications salesman who met Drost because his girlfriend is friends with Drost's wife. "He thinks government workers get a bad rap."

Drost admits that sniping against government workers ticks him off and laughs when reminded of his tiff with Daley.

"He was the one shouting," Drost says. "I was perfectly calm."

Drost's friends say he's never been afraid to take risks when he believes in something. Several years ago, he left his safe government job to pursue his love of sports. He earned a master's degree in sports administration from Kent State University and took jobs with the National Basketball Association and as a producer for a New York-based cable television sports show before launching a free, weekly all-sports Cleveland newspaper in 1992, Sportscomm. Drost had believed it would be able to hold its own against other free local publications like The Free Times and Scene. Unable to attract sufficient advertisers, it lasted less than a year.

"I saw a market for it," says Drost, who attributes closure of the 18,000-circulation paper to a poor economy.

Drost returned to DFAS, and continued to satisfy his sports interests through a part-time job with the Cavaliers, playing competitive pingpong and working on a book of sports humor and on his sportscartoon.com Web site. He frequently manages to work politics into his sports commentary. For example, his Web site offers this observation on Funny Cide's failure to win horse racing's Triple Crown:

"I think it would have been good for the world if Funny Cide pulled off the Trifecta: It would show us once and for all that men with no balls are capable of being great athletes. We already know they make great politicians."

Drost, who has an undergraduate degree in political science and international relations from Old Dominion University in Virginia, is also writing a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict told through a fictional Ohio prison guard's relationship with an incarcerated Palestinian terrorist.

"Unless all my professors were lying, in the long run the Palestinians got screwed," Drost says of the conflict. "That's not to say that Jewish people in Israel don't deserve a homeland, but the way it was done was brutal on the Palestinians."

Drost continues to work with his union and Kucinich's office to overturn the disputed contract, even though the inspector general's office revealed his role in its investigation to DFAS brass in May. While the investigation was under way, Drost met with the inspector general's office confidentially. Afterward, one of its investigators scheduled a meeting with him through DFAS upper management and asked if Drost would allow a representative from DFAS headquarters to be present. The episode worried Drost's wife, who works in corporate communications for Solon-based Swagelok Company, his friends and Kucinich.

"It was like Eliot Ness contacting Al Capone, saying he wanted to meet with the accountant who was providing information to the government," fumes Kucinich, who urged Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to protect Drost's job during a meeting of the House Government Reform committee.

Wolfowitz promised Kucinich he would hold "people responsible to make sure there is no retaliation" against Drost.

"Congressman, I agree with you, he should be thanked," Wolfowitz told Kucinich at the hearing. "Whistle-blower protections [are] not just to protect the whistle-blower. They are to protect the taxpayer so we can get that kind of information."

For Drost, the episode was par for the course with a political administration he despises for playing favorites with corporate America. He says it won't keep him from speaking forcefully about the problems he sees with both DFAS and Bush.

"One of the components of fascism is intimidation," Drost says. "The Dixie Chicks speak out, and they are pilloried. Tim Robbins is uninvited by the Baseball Hall of Fame on the anniversary of Bull Durham because of his beliefs. We can now jail people without charges and keep them in lockups. Obviously the Bush administration is trying to intimidate anybody who speaks out against them. It is almost like a reincarnation of the Brownshirts."

Although he doesn't seem truly worried that blowing the whistle on DFAS will end up cooking his goose, Drost reflects: "After this, I am sure it will be my turn to get Dixie Chicked."

Sabrina Eaton is a reporter in The Plain Dealer's Washington bureau. She listens to music by The Smiths on her way to work. She may be reached at 216-999-4212 or through magmail@plaind.com.


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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