A high-ranking official in former President Barack Obama’s administration allegedly used government funds to pay for cab rides and misused his government-issued credit card, according to a recent report.
While working at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Vikrum Aiyer, a former senior adviser on Obama’s White House National Economic Council, used government funds for 130 taxi rides over a two-year period against agency rules, and rang up a total of more than $15,000 in unauthorized purchases on his government credit card, the Inspector General (OIG) found.
The OIG’s report does not mention any specific agency personnel, but The Washington Post identified Aiyer as the “political appointee” who misused the credit card and rang up thousands of dollars in cab fares while assisting the patent office in managing a $3.4 billion budget.
When Aiyer would submit documentation for his unauthorized cab rides, he almost always “identified another Agency employee as the passenger” and would sometime use “fictitious names or the names of former employees” to obfuscate his role. One person Aiyer would impersonate was eventually contacted by supervisors
When investigators interviewed Aiyer, he explained that he learned this process of using the cabs for early morning meetings (any meeting scheduled before 9:00 a.m.) from two other agency officials.
“My understanding was, in terms of, ah, early morning and later departure, um, in the way that I saw [Agency Official D] use it, um, and in terms of conference with others, that [the Agency Cab Company account] was…copasetic to use,” Aiyer said, according to the OIG report. The agency official Aiyer mentioned denied that he would ever put someone else’s name on a taxi fare reimbursement document or make the government pay for day-to-day transportation.
Investigators determined that Aiyer knowingly misled the government for his cab fares. “The evidence … establishes that Political Appointee knowingly used the Agency’s Cab Company account for impermissible purposes on a routine basis and that he took steps to conceal his unauthorized use of this account by providing false names and false location information,” investigators for Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson wrote.
Aiyer didn’t list his home as the originating address for his cab rides, but would say he would start from the Department of Commerce’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, which was less than a mile from his house. He would then take the cab to the Alexandria, Va., office where he worked.
The scheme went unnoticed for some time, until supervisors noticed the inappropriate cab charges of a man listed as “Agency Official A” in the report. That man identified himself to the Washington Post as Patrick Ross, the former chief communications officer for the patent office.
“I was presented in early 2016 with a lengthy list of cab rides in my name that I had never taken,” Ross told the Post. “It was clear to me that someone at the agency was using my name, and putting my personal credibility at risk, to engage in actions that the individual knew was unethical and a violation of agency policy.”
Ross added that it was important to speak up because all the officials in the Obama administration knew that “ethics and personal responsibility were paramount in our daily service to the nation.”
The government estimates that Aiyer racked up $4,000 in charges to the cab company, but that pales compared to the $15,000 of taxpayer money the OIG claims that he spent on “local bars, clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and at least one liquor store.”
About a year after Aiyer first received his government charge card in 2012, his spending privileges were revoked for “failing to pay the outstanding balance.” Aiyer wrote to the department’s finance department that he knew he had messed up, and that he had “taken steps” to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
“I . . . want to underscore how deeply apologetic I am for the air of irresponsibility I demonstrated. I know managing government finances is an incredibly serious undertaking, and possessing a government [credit] card demands the utmost responsibility,” Aiyer wrote, according to the OIG. “I want to assure you I’ve taken steps …to…never make any such missteps again.”
His credit card privileges were restored, but his habits didn’t change. Aiyer continued to be promoted, finally being named chief of staff in January 2016, where his responsibilities included coordinating the trade office’s $3.4 billion budget for about 13,000 employees.
In 2016, Aiyer was moved from the standard government pay scale to the senior executive pay schedule, bumping his salary from $134,662 to $160,000, according to FederalPay.org, a private site that tracks salaries for government employees.
He resigned from the agency in January 2017 after the OIG opened an investigation into his behavior but before any administrative action was taken. His stated reason for leaving the government was the change of administration from Obama to President Donald Trump.
Aiyer now maintains that the allegations resulted from a misunderstanding, and that he is willing to reimburse the government for the taxi trips.
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