Watchdog scolds US marshals for spending $793,000 on ‘swag’

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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A report released Tuesday by the Justice Department’s inspector general blasted the U.S. Marshals Service for “excessive spending” after one of its sub-offices spent nearly $800,000 on “swag” in just six years.

From 2005 to 2010, the Investigative Operations Division (IOD) of the Marshals Service spent $793,118 on promotional items for its employees and partners in state and local law enforcement. The “swag” included $115,081 on challenge coins, $36,596 on lapel pins, $16,084 on blankets and throws and $13,605 on Christmas ornaments, all emblazoned with the U.S. Marshals Service’s logo.

“These expenditures were excessive and, in some instances, in contravention of Department Policies and Government Accountability Office decisions and guidance,” the investigators wrote. “Furthermore, IOD’s spending on promotional items increased by 975 percent during the 6-year period examined . . . and vastly outpaced the growth of the [U.S. Marshals Service] appropriation during the same period.”

Federal agencies may purchase limited “swag” if they can prove the expense is necessary to complete their mission. IOD had argued that challenge coins and lapel pins were an important part of cultivating cooperative relationships with other law enforcement entities. But investigators disagreed.

“We are skeptical of the justifications provided to us,” they wrote, “and found that eliminating the practice of funding the routine exchange of promotional items would not likely undermine the [U.S. Marshals Service] ability to obtain or retain other law enforcement agencies’ cooperation.”

IOD leadership also used Christmas ornaments, medallions and even stuffed bears as informal awards to improve the morale of Marshals Service employees, something investigators called an “unnecessary expense.”

The report noted that many of the purchases occurred at the end of the federal fiscal year, when agency budgets roll over and leftover funds are removed from next year’s account.

The inspector general blamed the “absence of internal controls” and a lack of good judgement on the part of purchasing personnel for the massive improper payments. IOD officials said they agreed with the investigators’ conclusions and had shrunk “swag” spending down to just over $200 in Fiscal Year 2012.

Nearly all federal agencies buy promotional items, and while the sheer size of the IOD’s purchases are noteworthy, many other departments pay thousands for “swag” of questionable merit.

A report released last year by government watchdog Cause of Action found that a U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Iowa spent nearly $26,000 on iPods, GPS systems and digital readers for their employees in the space of a month. The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, meanwhile, spent $11,605 for 1,200 USB flash drives shaped like police cars.

In November 2011 — months after the U.S. Marshals’ spending spree had ended — President Obama signed an executive order entitled “Promoting Efficient Spending.” The order called on all federal agencies to “limit the purchase of promotional items (e.g., plaques, clothing, and commemorative items), in particular where they are not cost-effective.”

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Brendan Bordelon