Saturday, May 16, 2015

Great Idea, Too Bad it's Illegal

The secret to a successful pyramid scheme - taxpayer's money

My good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations got bad news yesterday when one of their coworkers was indicted on charges of fraud and conflict of interest and it was announced that a former coworker, recently retired, pleaded guilty last month to conflict of interest charges in the same scheme.

And what was the purpose of all this conspiring and defrauding and conflict of interest? It was to sell overpriced soy protein shakes to security guards and construction surveillance technicians working at OBO construction sites. Yes, really. The two OBO officials ran a multi-level marketing business on the side, and sold the products to employees of an OBO contractor who provides personnel to monitor construction sites while new embassies are being built. At some point, the two crossed the line into crime when they began to approve fake invoices that reimbursed OBO's site security program contractor for all those soy shake purchases.

From the Justice Department announcement:
Tony Chandler, 68, of Severn, Maryland, and Marvin Hulsey, 52, of Stafford, Virginia, were indicted by a federal grand jury today on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud. Chandler also faces charges for conflicts of interest in the same indictment.

According to the indictment, Chandler was employed by the U.S. Department of State with duties as a contracting officer’s representative in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. In that capacity, Chandler was responsible for oversight of the contractor that employed Hulsey as a program manager. Apart from his government employment, Chandler was an authorized distributor of nutritional supplements for a multi-level marketing company. From 2008 and continuing into 2010, Chandler earned a commission of sales for nutritional supplements that were sold to employees under Hulsey’s supervision. The employees were reimbursed by Hulsey’s employer for the cost of the nutritional supplements, after which Hulsey, through agreement with Chandler, caused fake invoices to be created and submitted to the U.S. Department of State. Knowing that the cost of nutritional supplements was not an allowable cost, Chandler approved many of the fake invoices in his official capacity, causing the U.S. Department of State to make fraudulent payments back to Hulsey’s employer. Chandler earned a commission from the multi-level marketing company for each sale of nutritional supplements.

In a related case, on April 23, 2015, Gene Goodsell, the former U.S. Department of State supervisor of Chandler, pleaded guilty to a conflict of interest. According to documents filed in that case, Goodsell, who sponsored Chandler as an authorized distributor of nutritional supplements and earned commissions on each sale made by Chandler, became aware that Chandler sold nutritional supplements that were billed to the U.S. Department of State, and despite then knowing of his own personal financial interest in the contract, Goodsell continued to make official decisions concerning the contract.

Not to condone anyone, but maybe an unindicted co-conspirator here is the multi-level marketing business model, with its constant monkey-on-the-back need for 'topline' distributors to recruit more 'downline' layers to the pyramid.

The guy at the top probably paid a license fee to become a distributor, and probably also had to sign a contract to buy a certain product volume each month or quarter. He certainly doesn't want to drink all those shakes himself, so he basically solicits everybody he knows to recruit 'downline' layers, who recruit everybody they know, and so on, until someone somewhere has to actually buy the products. The 'topline' distributor then, in theory, receives a percentage of sales made by each lower layer of the pyramid.

I doubt it really works out that well for most distributors. Making the U.S. taxpayer the unwitting bottom layer of the pyramid was a great solution to the multi-level marketing dilemna, but unfortunately for my friends in OBO, it's not legal. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"Purina Employee Arrested For Stealing and Eating Over $30,000 Worth of Dog Biscuits" - World News Daily

"Surprisingly, the 49-year old employee doesn’t even own a pet, and would have ingested nearly 3000 dog biscuits per day during his work hours"

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Burundi Coup Fails; the Settling of Scores May Now Begin

Bujumbura (BBC)

The BBC reports that Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza says he has returned to the country and his troops are in control of key points, a day after a coup attempt.

That news reminded me of this exchange in the otherwise unmemorable 1995 movie Congo, based on a Michael Crichton novel:
How bad is this news for us?
Well, whenever the leadership of one of these little Central African counties comes into question, they tend to just murder everybody.
Oh, my God!
Not really. They live for the opportunity to settle scores. And they've got a lot of scores to settle.

The coup attempt may have failed, but the danger and disruption go on for the duration. The U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura announced that its personnel will shelter in place for the moment. Not much else they can do, as long as the airport remains shut down and the land borders are closed.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Goes Back to the Future of New Coke

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

Hey, look, a picture of a U.S. embassy with a fence right in front of the entrance! What do you think when you see that?

It makes me think "that's a really screwed-up situation since that building must have no setback distance at all, which makes it totally vulnerable to terrorist attacks and politically motivated violence, and we ought to replace it with a safe, secure, and functional Fortress Embassy." But that's just me.

Turns out I'm wrong, because the photo is on the cover of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy's new report about how Fortress Embassies are actually ruining everything, also known as Public Diplomacy at Risk: Protecting Open Access for American Centers. Read the full report here.

Briefly, this is what the ACPD wants to warn us about:

ACPD is concerned about the potential closure of 21 (of 32) American Centers in the next 10 years due to the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA), which requires all U.S. agencies in country be co-located on the embassy, consular and annex compounds. The hardening of our posts through SECCA was a logical and pragmatic response to a host of devastating attacks against U.S. embassy spaces in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet we are concerned that SECCA may be automatically and asymmetrically applied to U.S.-controlled public diplomacy platforms, American Centers and Information Resource Centers (IRCs), regardless of the characteristics of individual cases.

--snip --

The space for maximum engagement is the free-standing, U.S.-controlled American Center. Once the American Centers move to these [new embassy and consulate] compounds, they transform into less accessible Information Resource Centers (IRCs). IRCs are located in more remote locations, present more restrictive environments, and attract six times fewer visitors than American Centers.

-- snip --

ACPD believes it is imperative that we reconsider how the relocation of free-standing American Centers to U.S. embassy, consulate and annex compounds can complicate the essential goals of public diplomacy to understand, inform and engage foreign audiences to advance U.S. foreign policy ... We are concerned that the closing of American Centers is now accelerating and we emphasize the need for the selective and flexible application, on a case-by-case basis, of security standards.

The report is new but the contents are thirty years old. "This white paper is a follow up to the 1985 ACPD report, 'Terrorism and Security: The Challenge for Public Diplomacy,' which was submitted in reaction to the Inman Standards [sic] and their possible effect on the U.S. Information Agency (USIA)." Indeed, it follows the earlier report so closely that all the arguments it makes are recycled from 1985. If you've had any experience with public diplomacy matters since Back to the Future came out, since New Coke was launched, since the internet has existed over the years, then reading this report might be like experiencing an 80s nostalgia band.

The 1985 report was a plea to retain independent, stand-alone, and reasonably security-free American Centers outside of U.S. diplomatic facilities, but that idea lost out to the security recommendations made by the Inman Panel in 1985 and later codified into law by SECCA. New physical security standards were created which impeded the free operation of public diplomacy programs, the U.S. Information Agency lost its independence and was folded into the State Department, and around 140 new 'safe, secure, and functional' embassies have been built since then with only a few of them retaining a separate, stand-alone, American Center.

Having lost the argument in 1985, the ACPD waited thirty years and is now making the same arguments all over again. Good luck to them, but I don't think their case has gotten any better over time. For one thing, they still blame the Inman Commission Report for all the troubles in the public diplomacy world ever since 1985, and rehash old myths:

The Advisory Panel on Overseas Security at the State Department, or the “Inman Panel” (as it was known in honor of its Chairman, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman) created the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and proposed the Inman Standards, which stated that all embassies should be set back at least 100 feet from the street and be located on plots of 15 acres or more, and preferably outside of city centers. It was also recommended that U.S. Information Agency (USIA) libraries also relocate from city centers to the fortified embassy compounds.

That's wrong on all counts. The Inman Panel proposed no security standards at all - rather, it proposed that an interagency body ought to create mandatory minimum standards - and it said nothing about what size plots of land should be acquired for new embassy construction or where those plots should be located. The ACPD has had thirty years to read the Inman Panel report; where do they find any of that stuff in it?

To be sure, most of the Fortress Embassies that have been built since Congress began funding new embassy construction do have 100 feet of setback from their property lines, and they are on plots of land large enough to collocate all mission functions, and large plots of land do tend to be available and affordable only outside of city centers. However, don't blame the Inman Panel too directly. Those are all inevitable consequences of embarking on a strategic program to replace most of our old embassy facilities, as mandated by public law. See this publicly available source of information for an impeccable summary of that new embassy construction program, starting on page 8. Blame or credit Congress for that, not Inman.

And, there is the straight-out-of-1985 argument that new embassy locations will not be served by public transportation, leaving public diplomacy clients with no way to get there. That one wasn't supportable even in 1985, and since then we've had much experience to the contrary. The ACPD cites U.S. Consulate Mumbai, India, as an example of a PD program that suffered after it lost its stand-alone American Center and "moved into [a New Consulate Complex] that is remote from the city center and far from major transportation lines." Actually, U.S. Consulate Mumbai was relocated to the city's new Bandra Kurla Complex where it is served by an abundance of public transportation. The public can get a ride there if it wants, and the same is true of other new embassy locations.

If the public isn't visiting our American Centers as often as it did back in the 80s and before, maybe there are reasons for that apart from our modern-day security measures. Like the fact that, even in the developing world, people can find air-conditioned buildings and internet access almost anywhere these days. Surely the ACPD must have statistics on this matter.

Here's something I'd like to see the ACPD report on: did the number of visitors to the stand-alone American Center in New Delhi remain steady during the same period when visitors declined in Mumbai, or did the numbers decline in both places? Two PD programs in the same country, one located in a legacy stand-alone building that was built for USIA in the 1960s, and the other absorbed into a new Fortress Embassy about five years ago. That's practically a controlled experiment. If the numbers support ACPD's case against Fortress Embassies, then they should make them public.

One thing in the current ACPD report is new, and that's a request for PD clients to use their smart phones and iPads and such inside U.S. diplomatic office buildings:

A worldwide policy for open access to [Information Resource Centers, i.e., the libraries which have been absorbed into new embassies and consulates] that applies to all posts is necessary. This would lift "by appointment only" restrictions where they exist, create a separate security screening from the main chancery, permit unescorted access, and allow use of personal electronic devices and wireless internet access.

Okaaay ... so we should let our foreign visitors drop in on our diplomatic facilities whenever, and walk around by themselves using their own electronic devices as they see fit? What could possibly go wrong? Other than what has already gone wrong, I mean. But, do we need more computer intrusion problems?

Ironically, ACPD could have made a security-based argument that "open access" is both necessary for its programs and cannot be done inside a diplomatic facility without creating unacceptable risk to computer networks. That was a lost opportunity to get aboard the security bandwagon.

Of course, the ACPD makes a bold proposal for ending all the security nuttiness that effects its programs. Since Congress caused a lot of the problem when it passed a law that requires all new diplomatic facilities to have at least 100 feet of setback distance, and to collocate all offices and agencies in one big compound, then it could just pass a Sense of the Congress resolution saying it doesn't really intend for that law to apply to American Centers, and encourage the Secretary of State to freely use his authority to grant waivers letting them stay outside of Fortress Embassies.

Great idea, but it has already been done. In 2009, the Senate passed a Sense of the Senate Resolution, reported out of committee by one Senator Kerry, which resolved that:

the Secretary of State should initiate a reexamination of the public diplomacy platform strategy of the United States with a goal of reestablishing publicly accessible American Centers;


after taking into account relevant security considerations, the Secretary of State should consider placing United States public diplomacy facilities at locations conducive to maximizing their use, consistent with the authority given to the Secretary under section 606(a)(2)(B) of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (22 U.S.C. 4865(a)(2)(B)) to waive certain requirements of that Act.

That same Senator Kerry is now the Secretary of State. The ACPD therefore must already have the most receptive audience possible for requests to waive the law whenever new construction threatens one of the remaining autonomous American Centers. So, why hasn't that solved the problem? A waiver process exists; isn't anyone using it, or are they using it but getting denied? In the case of Consulate Mumbai, for instance, did the post even request a waiver? We might want to look into that before calling on Congress for another resolution the same as the last resolution.    

Despite it all, I really like American Centers and hope they can remain a viable platform. That's why it annoys me to see the ACPD rerunning half-baked arguments that didn't work for them thirty years ago. Have they learned nothing and forgotten nothing?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Friday, May 1, 2015

Dropped Glock Found by Tot - Back to School For Capitol Cops?

Photo from Roll Call

So it seems that some United States Capitol Police officers have a bad habit of leaving pistols behind when they exit the gent's bathroom. Two of the USCP's pistols were found by surprised visitors - one of them a child - since January, and a third was found by a janitor last month.

Roll Call reports, Capitol Police Left Guns in Bathrooms:
When a member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s security detail left his Glock and magazine stuffed in the toilet seat cover holder of a Capitol Visitor Center bathroom stall, a CVC worker found the gun, according to a source familiar with the Jan. 29 incident and two other disturbing instances when Capitol Police left loaded firearms in problematic places.

A 7- or 8-year-old child visiting the Capitol with his parents found the next loaded Glock lost by a dignitary protection officer, according to the source. A member of the security detail for John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, allegedly left the firearm in the bathroom of the Speaker’s Suite on March 24.

A third Glock was found the night of April 16 by a janitor cleaning the Capitol Police headquarters building on D Street NE. The weapon was left in plain sight, sparking additional concern about the department charged with protecting one of the world’s most important and frequently visited complexes.

On Friday, CQ Roll Call spoke with members who called for a full investigation into firearms regulations. House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said he wanted Capitol Police to “retrain everyone that carries a gun.”

Does everyone on the USCP need to be retrained? Since at least two of the three culprits were dignitary protection guys and not regular Capitol Police officers, maybe that retraining ought to be focused on them, where it evidently belongs.

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"Quake-struck Nepal launches inquiry as Pakistan sends 'beef masala' to country where cow slaughter is banned " - Daily Mail India