Let me spell out why I’m upset at my field office, the one balking at following the directions from headquarters.
When a contracting officer of the U.S. federal government signs a contract, on behalf of the government, he or she assumes personal liability for any screw-ups he makes in the course of letting that contract. If he orders a contractor to do something, without the funds or authority to compel the contractor to take that action, he can be personally liable for the debt owed by the government to the contractor. That’s a Big Deal, no matter how you look at it, given that a great deal of my Big Gubm’nt Agency’s (BGA’s) contracts are worth multiple-millions of dollars, well in excess of the typical federal government employee’s salary.
In my role as legal counsel, looking at the fiscal responsibilities of the federal government and its accountable officers, my professional opinion rendered in the course of my employment can relieve a contracting officer of personal liability. If I tell an employee to take a certain action and that action is later found to be incorrect by a competent tribunal, the employee who followed my advice will not be held liable for following that advice. He or she sought the advice of counsel, and followed it, for better or worse. That’s a big deal, because we’re dealing with the public’s money, and if someone truly defrauds the taxpayers, they should be held liable for that fraud. So letting someone off that hook is not something to be done lightly.
Obviously I have no desire to defraud the government of funds; this money is my tax money as well as the usual federal taxpayer’s, and I don’t want to see it misspent when I can avoid it. So it’s distressing to me, personally, when a field office of my BGA questions my integrity, implicitly, by continuing to question the opinion my office has rendered in a particular case. The idea that I would casually hang a fellow federal employee out to dry, or that I would place the finances of my BGA in jeopardy, is personally abhorrent to me, and it causes me a great deal of distress when our field personnel assume that I would be so cavalier with their and the taxpayer’s finances. I think that’s what stressing me out about this latest brouhaha with the field, that implicitly they are questioning whether I am acting properly in my role as counsel to protect them and the head of my BGA. And the idea that they think I’m acting against their and the taxpayer’s interests, whether overtly or subtly, is a smirch on my professional integrity, and not something I take lightly. Thus, I’m distressed over the situation, as much as they are likely distressed as they contemplate taking an action which might cause them a great deal of personal debt. I don’t want that for them, nor do I want something to go wrong for the taxpayer or the administration (regardless of party), so I’m stuck in a very difficult situation until I can convince them that we’re not going to subject them to personal liability, something they’re not quite ready to accept.