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‘$640 Toilet Seat’ Syndrome Still Plaguing Pentagon

DONNA CASSATAJune 30, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A few years back, red-faced Pentagon officials admitted they were buying $436 hammers and $640 toilet seats.

Reforms went into effect.

Now they’re buying $999 pliers and $117 soap dish covers.

Two Republican senators want to know why.

″We have been informed by defense officials that overpricing and other systemic problems are as prevalent today within the supply system as they were in the mid-1980s,″ Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and William Roth of Delaware said in a letter to the Defense Department’s inspector general.

The two GOP senators urged the department to audit its purchasing records to determine whether the prices were reasonable in comparison to commercial market costs.

The audit also should provide some indication of whether the ″exorbitant price phenomenon of spare parts purchased by the Defense Department is still with us,″ the lawmakers said in the letter released this weekend.

Accompanying the letter is a sampling from the military services’ shopping list: $999.20 for pliers for Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma; $1,500 for a hydraulic hand jack for the Navy Aviation Supply Office in Philadelphia; and $117 for a soap dish cover for a defense supply center in Columbus, Ohio.

The list also includes $1,868.15 for a toilet seat cover for the C-5 cargo plane.

The cover, according to Pentagon documents, is made of fiberglass reinforced honeycomb, polyurethane plastic and stainless steel to withstand ″a corrosive environment through the lifetime of the aircraft.″

In addition to those purchases, the Pentagon paid $120.40 for a stainless steel, lacquered Dixie Cup dispenser. The dispenser retails for no more than $25 apiece.

Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner said Inspector General Susan J. Crawford was concerned with the issues raised in the senators’ letter and planned to conduct an audit.

The inspector general also planned to examine the results based on a comprehensive audit the department conducted in 1985 to determine whether ″agreed-to corrections were implemented.″

The two senators said various legislation and such reform efforts as the Packard Commission and the recent Defense Management Review were intended to address the problems of overpricing that created a controversy during the Reagan administration.

″If this problem has not been corrected, then the $10 billion of savings claimed by the Defense Department from 1991 to 1995 from better management of supply costs must be called into question,″ Roth and Grassley said.

Roth, the co-chairman of the Defense Reform Caucus in Congress and member of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, said the charges of waste is ″like a bad B-movie, ’The Return of the $640 Toilet Seat Cover.‴

Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on courts and administrative practice, said that based on a preliminary inquiry, the data ″sure harkens back to the good old days - or maybe the good old days never left us. Of course, we thought that they did.″

Grassley, in a telephone interview from Iowa on Friday, said he did not doubt Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s efforts to reform the Pentagon but feared that the Pentagon chief was ″being undercut by the services.″

The lawmakers also questioned the Air Force’s justification for the price of the $999.20 pliers.

Shortly after published reports in The Miami Herald about the prices, the Air Force said the contractor, Pratt & Whitney, ″did make sure the item was made in accordance with the drawings, with all the necessary checks and compliance and whatnot.″

″Perhaps $999 was a bargain for this item after all,″ said Cliff Goodhue, a cost analyst at the Air Force Logistics Command headquarters in Ohio.

The maker of the pliers, City Tool of Florida, charged Pratt & Whitney $669 a pair for the pliers. The contractor added $330 to the price of each pair to the Air Force.

The amount fell $1 short of the cost that requires the military to buy directly from the manufacturer for items of $1,000 or more.

In a separate letter to Cheney, Roth expressed disbelief with the Air Force comments.

″The fact that defense acquisition officials continue not only to accept these prices but also to defend them as reasonable is unacceptable to the American taxpayer,″ Roth said.

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