Link: GAO Opinion
Agency: Department of the Navy
As part of an assessment of readiness and quality of life concerns for Department of Navy activities in Japan, a Navy Inspector General (IG) team led a focus group in which volunteer ombudsmen, generally spouses of active duty command members, participated. A certifying officer asks whether his command could have used appropriated funds to pay for lunch for the ombudsmen in order to increase participation at the focus group. In general, an agency may not use appropriated funds for a personal expense, such as lunch. Consideration of whether to provide food as an incentive for focus group participation must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all the factual circumstances and the particular statutory objective the agency is trying to achieve. In the present instance, the command has not identified a specific statutory objective, just a general responsibility to cooperate with an IG investigation, conducted under the IG’s authorities. Accordingly, under the facts presented, we cannot conclude that the command could have used its appropriated funds in this manner.
General Counsel P.C. Highlight:
A certifying officer with the United States Navy Fleet Activities at Okinawa, Japan, requests a decision regarding the provision of lunch at a Navy Inspector General focus group. Specifically, the certifying officer asks whether his command could have used appropriated funds to provide lunch to volunteer command ombudsmen at a Navy Inspector General (IG) focus group. GAO cannot conclude that such a use of appropriated funds would be proper.
As a general rule, GAO states that agencies may not use appropriated funds to pay for personal expenses. Because of the clear potential for abuse, GAO finds exceptions to the general rule only rarely. GAO has allowed such exceptions when a particular expenditure for an item that is ordinarily considered personal in nature primarily benefits the government, notwithstanding the collateral benefit to the individual. In cases such as this, the issue presented is the availability of the public’s money to supply goods or services that inure to the benefit of individuals. GAO generally resolves the issue by assessing the benefits to the agency from any such expenditure. The determining factor is whether, on balance, the agency or the individual receives the primary benefit. If the primary beneficiary is the individual, not the agency or the government, the well-established rule is that such expenditure is not an authorized use of appropriated funds. GAO will consider exceptions to the general rule only after careful consideration of the particular factual circumstances. Any exception, therefore, is necessarily case-specific.
Consideration of whether to provide food as an incentive for focus group participation cannot be approached in a generalized manner; it must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all factual circumstances and the particular statutory objective the agency is trying to achieve. It is not clear whether IG weighed options in determining that it was necessary to hold this focus group on a Sunday during the normal lunch hour. IG may very well have decided that of all the focus group meetings to be scheduled while in Okinawa, it was willing to accept the trade-offs of scheduling the ombudsmen meeting at noon on a Sunday. GAO recognizes that offering a meal or refreshments to the focus group participants indeed might have increased the participation rate at the lunchtime meeting. GAO further acknowledges that gaining the perspectives of these volunteer ombudsmen may have bestowed some benefit upon the command. These facts by themselves, however, are not enough to show that the provision of meals at the focus group would primarily benefit the government by meeting specific statutory objectives. As a result, GAO cannot conclude that the command could have used appropriated funds in this manner.