GAO raps accounting practices at Goddard but center calls report 'overblown'

November 17, 1992|By Carol Emert and Will Dunham | Carol Emert and Will Dunham,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Goddard Space Flight Center is failing to collect on many of its debts, has lost track of millions of dollars in government property and is spending more than it is supposed to because of shoddy accounting methods, according to a recent congressional report.

Goddard, in Greenbelt, about 30 miles south of Baltimore, has also levied surcharges on other agencies, in violation of federal regulations, for work it has performed for them, said General Accounting Office investigator Donald R. Wurtz, who led the probe. The agencies improperly charged by Goddard include other divisions of NASA.

Goddard officials admitted to the existence of a "kitty," which was worth $6.8 million at the end of fiscal year 1991, according to the report. The officials said they planned to use the money "to finance future needs, such as equipment replacements," the report said.

But Goddard officials disputed other allegations in the report, calling it an exaggerated and "overblown" account of their admittedly imperfect bookkeeping methods.

The 76-page report, which covered the period from February 1990 to July 1992, reviewed the management of billions of dollars at Goddard and at NASA's Washington headquarters, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Some 85 percent of NASA's budget goes to private contracting companies, and Mr. Wurtz said this arrangement is related to many of the agency's accounting problems.

Goddard, for example, provides millions of dollars in computer equipment and other property for 75 of its 400 contracts, but consistently fails to keep track of that property, the report said.

"As a result, Goddard could not distinguish between the government-owned property and the contractor-owned property at the contractors' sites," the report said. The other three space centers reviewed require their contractors to submit annual reports on the government-owned property they are using, it said.

But Chuck Dunfee, Goddard's procurement officer, tells a much different story.

"I think we know very well what property our contractors have both on site... and outside. We have adequate records of it and we have inventoried it as we are required to do and I just disagree with what they said."

Goddard officials submitted rebuttals to the GAO, but Mr. Dunfee said the GAO "did not change the report based on our rebuttal."

Mr. Wurtz of the GAO said Goddard's rebuttal to the report "was that, all of a sudden, they found information they didn't have when we were there... The question is, 'Why wasn't that stuff LTC shown to us at the time? How did it miraculously appear?' "

The GAO also found consistent overexpenditures by contractors that were not properly controlled or reported by NASA analysts.

For example, a toilet that was developed at the Johnson Space Center for the space shuttle Endeavour was projected in 1988 to cost $2.9 million and wound up costing $30 million by May 1991, the report said.

One feature added to the toilet design, said Mr. Wurtz, was a window to let astronauts watch a fan in the toilet as it dispersed fecal matter. "They added a viewing window in order to be able to see the, uh, waste hit the fan," Mr. Wurtz said. "It's a little humorous, but it's the truth."

The report also stated that NASA itself added several costly features to the project that neither the agency nor the contractor considered vital, including a $200,000 "coffee can," where astronauts can store toothbrushes and other personal hygiene items.

While Goddard overcharged its sister agencies for services rendered, in other cases, the center failed to collect money owed to it by other government entities, the report said.

This caused a negative balance in the center's accounts, it said.

Goddard Comptroller Charlie Tulip agreed the failure to keep track of its bills is "a bad thing, to be honest with you. We should have been more careful in billing our customers." But there was no net negative balance for the government, he said.

"We think the thing [the GAO report] is a little overblown," he said. "It's not like we were spending money we didn't have."

But the GAO contends that, in another instance, Goddard did spend more money than was authorized. Because of an inadequate funds control system, documents setting limits on spending sometimes arrived after spending had exceeded the proscribed amount. Goddard exceeded "its available resource authority by a total of $500,000" in fiscal year 1990, the report said.

"We again don't believe that the circumstances are as serious as they made them out to be," Mr. Tulip said.

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