Anyone can make a mistake. The mistakes can or should be pointed out in a performance evaluation that is private and hopefully prevents the problem from recurring.
But Uncle Sam doesn’t usually extract money from its employees when they make a mistake and most mistakes won’t end up costing you a considerable amount of money. And, for most readers, your performance evaluation won’t end up as a public case to be read by anyone with access to the internet.
But, for all of its good points as an employer, Uncle Sam doesn’t smile favorably on giving away money without authorization. And, for an employee of the Forest Service, her mistake ended up costing her $5,631.85.
Juanita Jimenez is a certifying officer for the Forest Service. She got stuck with the full bill.
Here’s what happened. When the Gifford Pinchot National Forest had a forest fire, the agency contracted with Evergreen Bus Service to provide transportation in connection with firefighting operations.
Bills for this service were submitted twice and got paid twice. The agency tried to get the money back. The company sent a check for the $5631.85 but it bounced and the company went into bankruptcy.
An internal review determined there was no fraud involved on the part of Jimenez-she just made a mistake. As often happens after an incident like this, the agency provided more training and set up more internal controls.
But the innocent mistake still set her back for the full amount. Under section 31 of the U.S. Code, a certifying officer must repay any “illegal, improper, or incorrect” payment resulting from an inaccurate certification. In this case, Jimenez certified four payments in the same amount and to the same vendor which had been paid a few days earlier.
The agency went to the GAO and asked for permission to relieve the Jimenez from having to pay the bill. There was too much work, said the agency, which led to mistakes. And, putting its own pride and competence on the line, the agency contended that it was at fault for not providing better training.
The GAO concluded it was a nice try but said that Jimenez was out of luck and stuck with the full bill. In giving its version of a performance evaluation, GAO said “At the very least, we would expect that a certifying officer exerting the requisite amount of care and diligence would have questioned the payments based upon the attached carbon copies and photocopies.” And, for good measure, “Heavy workload is not a consideration for relieving a certifying officer from liability for an improper payment.”
You can download the GAO decision from the link on the left hand side of the page.