Over the last week, allegations of corruption have rocked the federal disability employment agency, AbilityOne, and the SourceAmerica program it administers. As a sign of how serious the allegations are, no less than four federal agency investigators general and the Department of Justice have launched investigations into claims of widespread fraud, bid-rigging, lax or non-existent oversight, and conflict of interest at the program. Moreover, following public disclosure of the allegations, on July 28, 2015, displaced workers and supporters of disability rights staged a demonstration on Capitol Hill calling for sweeping reforms.
The origins of the federal disability employment program that is now AbilityOne reach back to 1938 and the passage of the Wagner-O’Day Act under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Act offered employment for people who are blind in manufacturing mops and brooms for use by the federal government. In 1971, the Act was amended and expanded to offer employment for people with severe disabilities and to allow the program to offer additional services to the government. Today, AbilityOne is the nation’s largest source of employment for people who are blind or severely disabled, providing jobs for more than 45,000 workers and distributing roughly $3 billion of federal money annually through the two programs its administers: National Industries for the Blind and SourceAmerica.
Yet, if there is any truth to the recent allegations (which, it must be mentioned, derive from as-yet unnamed sources and program insiders) something has gone seriously wrong over the agency’s 70+ year history. Anonymous sources cited in the media have painted a picture of a far-too-cozy relationship between SourceAmerica and its supposed overseer, AbilityOne, with insiders at SourceAmerica funneling contracts to their friends or affiliated businesses and AbilityOne rubberstamping those arrangements with virtually no investigation or oversight. In recent years, sources allege, a vastly disproportionate share of SourceAmerica contracts have been awarded to only ten companies, many of which (allegedly) have connections to SourceAmerica officials.
As if the potential misuse of $2.3 billion of taxpayer funds (SourceAmerica’s share of the roughly $3 billion administered by AbilityOne) weren’t bad enough, sources also have alleged gross lapses in AbilityOne’s compliance monitoring of SourceAmerica, i.e. ensuring that the jobs set aside for people with disabilities actually go to those persons. Among other things, tipsters claim that SourceAmerica contract awardees openly flout the requirement that 75% of their workers be persons with severe disabilities and that the program watchdog, AbilityOne, is not stopping that conduct.
One telling illustration of the current state of “oversight”, media sources allege, is that in a sample of 80 letters sent by AbilityOne to contractors asserting non-compliance with program requirements, only half the recipients bothered to respond and in no case was a non-compliant company disciplined by the agency. The same sources claim that AbilityOne, which is required to carry out regular compliance inspections of its contractors, has not sent investigators to some locations for years or decades. If true, that watchdog is looking pretty toothless. More importantly, it means that the people who are supposed to be able to find work under the program—people who may be discriminated against when they try to find work elsewhere—likely are being cheated out of the jobs set aside for them.
We are sure to hear more about these allegations over the coming months as the IG and DOJ investigations unfold. Here’s hoping the reports prove unfounded and that the program begun by President Roosevelt—perhaps the nation’s most prominent advocate for disability rights—is not being used as a slush fund at the expense of the people it was meant to help.
Recent CNN coverage of the AbilityOne/SourceAmerica allegations is available at: <<http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/27/us/disabled-work-program-investigation/>> and <<http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/28/us/disabled-work-program/>>.
view full post >