District of Columbia workers billed taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to dine out during Winter Storm Jonas last year in violation of federal law, according to a new audit.
While the government paid for D.C. desk workers to eat at local restaurants such as Ted's Bulletin and Matchbox during the blizzard, workers plowing the streets were not given bonus pay until nine months after the storm.
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The government spent $521,857 on hotels and $145,193 on food for employees during Jonas, the January 2016 storm that blanketed the district in 17.8 inches of snow. The amount spent on hotels and food surpassed what the district spent on trash collection, fuel for snow removal, and heating repairs during the two-day storm.
The report released by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor found the expenses violated federal appropriations law, which prohibits funds being used for free food or lodging for employees without authorization. Government employees must be working 24-hour shifts in emergency situations for an exemption under the Home Rule Act. District employees were not.
During the blizzard, the district spent $19,916.30 at McDonald's, $37,715 for Phil & Syl's Catering Services, and thousands more at local restaurants.
Government workers spent $2,340 at the far-left anti-Israel restaurant Busboys and Poets, whose owner believes Israel is an "occupation" force guilty of "terrorizing" the Middle East.
Other restaurants included Ben's Chili Bowl ($527.45), Matchbox ($1595.00), Taylor Gourmet ($2,762.77), Ted's Bulletin ($5,063.49), and Domino's ($1,021.61).
"Finally, District employees did not provide receipts for $4,449.37 of the food purchases," the audit said.
Improper purchases were made by departments across the D.C. government, including the mayor's office, the Child and Family Services Agency, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the Department of Behavioral Health, the Department of Disability Services, and the Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services.
The audit stated the federal government is very strict in enforcing the Home Rule Act. Inclement weather and the closure of the federal government are not enough to receive an exemption.
"These employees did not work 24-hour shifts, nor, given that they were not on an around-the-clock shift, was each individual employee essential to maintain the functions of the office during the snow emergency," the audit said. "Local food was available to District employees, especially considering that several receipts show that government employees dined-in at restaurants or received meal cards for fast food restaurants such as McDonalds or Subway, which required them to leave their worksite to obtain food during breaks."
While taxpayers were billed for desk workers' meals during the storm, workers promoted to plow the streets were not paid bonuses for more than nine months due to mismanagement.
"According to interviews with staff at [the Department of Public Works] DPW and documentation provided by the agency, it is customary for DPW to initiate temporary promotions of sanitation truck drivers to be on-call snow plow and truck drivers during the peak winter snow period running from approximately mid-January through the end of March," the audit said. "Six employees whom the District had temporarily promoted during the most recent snow season had not received compensation for their work as late as October 2016—nearly nine months after the storm."
The district agreed with the audit's recommendation to revise its policies for food and hotel purchases but disagreed that it broke the law. The district said its Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency gets an annual waiver from the Office of Contracting and Procurement. It further said the food and hotel purchases were within the law because of the storm posed an "imminent danger to human life."
In addition to food and hotel costs, snow removal contractors overcharged the district during the storm, the audit found.
"Contractors directly engaged for emergency snow removal services charged the District substantially higher than normal rates for services, and [auditors] found no evidence that District employees sought to negotiate a better price," the audit said.
"You will be glad to know we have already changed some of the practices you discuss in your audit and we believe we are in a better state of preparation – in terms of equipment on hand, internal organization, and contractor readiness – for weather events this winter as compared to last year," the District said in response to the audit.
Overall, the District of Columbia spent $41 million responding to Winter Storm Jonas.