IHS equipment goes missing - and not all of it old junk

WASHINGTON - A forensic audit and related investigations of the IHS has identified missing equipment and property worth approximately $15.8 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued July 21.

The lost or stolen government property includes more than 1,100 information technology items ;'missing from IHS headquarters'' in Rockville, Md., including laptop computers and digital cameras, ''about 36 percent of all IT equipment on the books at headquarters in 2007,'' with a monetary worth of $2 million or so. ''Further, IHS staff attempted to obstruct GAO's investigation by fabricating hundreds of documents.''

GAO estimates another 1,200 missing IT items, worth about $2.6 million, at seven IHS field offices in four service regions. ''This represented about 17 percent of all IT equipment at these locations.''

Also missing after a physical inventory were Caterpillar tractors, all-terrain vehicles, pickup trucks and a ''jaws of life'' emergency rescue machine, GAO reported.

At a July 31 hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, IHS Director Robert G. McSwain defended his agency, arguing that many of the defects highlighted by the report stem from IHS inconveniences to GAO's audit system. He said GAO arrived at its alleged loss figures in part by valuing worn-out, distantly stored, ''disabled standing'' (that is, too distant to ship cost-effectively out of the field) and sent-to-Alaska equipment as if it were lost or just like new.

''Not all of it was old junk,'' responded Greg Kutz, managing director of the GAO's Forensic Audit and Special Investigations Unit.

McSwain also questioned ''the fullness of the, quote, 'fabrication''' claimed by GAO.

''Employees have rights,'' he added, as SCIA Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., peppered IHS staff with discredit. Capitol Hill staff serve ''at will,'' with few rights beyond the basic constitutional protections.

The report blames top management at IHS for soft-pedaling property management problems that surfaced in 1997. ''During the last two years, thousands of dollars' worth of computer equipment have been lost or stolen,'' stated a March 12, 1997, letter that was signed ''for'' McSwain, a career IHS employee, by someone else.

''In particular,'' the audit contends, ''IHS management has failed to establish a strong 'tone at the top' by allowing inadequate accountability over property to persist for years and by neglecting to fully investigate cases related to lost and stolen items.''