Critics question AoC motives after credit-card policy shift

After allegations that some employees were improperly making purchases on government credit cards, the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) claimed it adopted new rules for using the cards. But some believe there is another motive for the policy changes.

After allegations that some employees were improperly making purchases on government credit cards, the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) claimed it adopted new rules for using the cards. But some believe there is another motive for the policy changes.

In a recent memo, the AoC informed Capitol Power Plant supervisors that certain government credit card purchases will no longer be allowed, such as on bottled water.

Capitol Power Plant tunnel supervisor John Thayer said the new restrictions were given without reason, leading him to suspect they were meant as retaliation against the 10-man tunnel crew for continuing to report dangerous workplace hazards.

“I’m the only one who routinely buys water,” Thayer said, explaining that the men on his team use bottled water and other beverages that have replenishing electrolytes because they have no access to faucets or other hydration sources while working inside the 4,000 feet of underground utility tunnel.

“You need 140 ounces a day when you are doing nothing,” he said. “We work inside tunnels that can heat up to 140 degrees — we probably need more like 300 ounces.”

Thayer expressed concern that the absence of water could lead to a violation of new AoC heat-stress policies designed to help keep the men cool in the extreme temperatures.

“How are we suppose to keep cool without water?” he asked.

The Nov. 29 memo from Cynthia Bennett, AoC director of procurement division to Thayer’s boss Mark Weiss, director of the plant, limits purchases “until further notice.”

In addition to “all beverages whether hot, cold, or flavored (including water)” and food, the memo stipulates that purchases of  “clothing of any type or description … safety award pins … [and] kitchen supplies” were to be prohibited.

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the AoC, said the new restrictions were in place due to the allegations of improper purchases made with the cards.

“Appropriations law specifies what can and cannot be purchased with federal funds,” she said. “This review will determine if the purchases were appropriate.”

Malecki added, “These restrictions do not affect the purchase of personal protective equipment or other safety equipment.”

Thayer argued that the clothing provision in the memo was in response to his government credit card purchase of coveralls to protect his team from the carcinogen asbestos, which lines the tunnel floors and walls and drifts through the air inside.

“I’m now being told that the coveralls were an authorized purchase,” Thayer said.

The memo seems to imply that employees are purchasing the water because they believe power plant water to be insufficient.

“Should the AoC power plant wish to buy bottled water in the future, federal regulations require that an independent laboratory issue a finding that the building’s water supply is unhealthy or unpotable [sic] before purchases of water can be made,” Bennett wrote in the memo.

Thayer claimed that it was not the quality of power plant water that was unsatisfactory — it was the fact that much of the time there is no access to water for members of the tunnel crew.

“My boss told me to start bringing water from home,” he said.

David Marshall, a lawyer for the tunnel crew in its suit against the AoC for other alleged instances of retaliation, said he was sending a letter to Architect Alan Hantman to complain about the treatment and was planning on reporting the incident to the Office of Compliance.

“While the memo seems to be companywide, the tunnel shop workers are the only ones who do not have access to facilities … they are the only employees who have to carry [water] where they work so [they can have access,” he said. “We view this as further retaliation.”

Marshall added, “The members of the tunnel crew need coveralls to protect them against the asbestos that the Architect has allowed to accumulate inside the tunnels despite management’s knowledge of the problem.”

The Capitol Power Plant workers retained Marshall in October after they felt that the AoC was retaliating against their group after they made their extremely hazardous working environment public.

The Capitol Power utility tunnels carry steam and chilled water to the Capitol Hill complex. The AoC is charged with maintaining and repairing problems within the tunnels, some of which are over 100 years old. 

“We have $5 zillion that we spend and that’s the only thing they can think of to cut back on. I’m sure other people are purchasing lots of other frivolous things,” Thayer said.

The presence of bottled water inside congressional offices is not uncommon.  Many offices choose to use a portion of their budget to make sure their staff stays hydrated.

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