WASHINGTON (AP) Several employees at the agency that checks for fraud and abuse in federal housing programs have been suspended in an investigation into the use of government computers to obtain sexually explicit materials, officials said.
The investigation into the Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general's office caught Secretary Andrew Cuomo off guard because the watchdog agency didn't inform the department.
"We heard about the allegation. We had not been previously informed," HUD Deputy Secretary Saul Ramirez said. "We're obviously very concerned because such use of government computers is clearly a violation of the department's policy."
"We have asked for a response from the IG and she has repeatedly failed to provide that response," Ramirez said in a statement.
In a letter to Ramirez on Friday, Inspector General Susan Gaffney blamed a canceled meeting for the delay and said, "I now look forward to discussing the issue at our rescheduled meeting" next week.
A HUD official familiar with the investigation, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said senior auditing employees at the inspector general offices in Washington, Fort Worth, Texas, and Boston have been suspended in connection with the probe. The official did not know exactly how many employees have been suspended.
"The investigation involves the improper use of government computers to download sexually explicit materials and, in some cases, the distribution of the materials via HUD e-mail," the official said.
A spokesman for Gaffney declined comment.
All Cabinet departments and other major federal agencies have an independent watchdog office of inspector general, responsible for guarding against waste, fraud and abuse.
The official said the allegations of the misuse of computers by HUD inspector general employees was overseen by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which monitors the conduct of the inspector generals.
The council used FBI agents and investigators from the Labor Department's IG office to conduct the investigation.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show investigators requested computer usage logs for 10 HUD inspector generals' employees showing which Web sites they visited during 1999. The request was made last December.
The senior HUD official told the AP the suspensions were handed out within the last few weeks.
Calls to the offices of three employees on the list this week confirmed they have been placed on leave.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., wrote Gaffney on Friday expressing concerns that workers within an agency charged with guarding against abuse were involved in misusing computers. He also chided Gaffney for not telling HUD officials earlier.
"I have received reports that senior members of your office have been subjected to disciplinary actions, including suspensions, for accessing and downloading pornographic material from the Internet during the workday using their HUD computers and transmitting such materials using HUD's e-mail system," Lantos wrote.
"In my view, it is clear that you are required to advise both Congress and HUD senior management about these matters," he added.
The HUD matter comes just a few weeks after the White House acknowledged that a handful of its employees were reprimanded and one was suspended without pay a year ago for downloading pornographic material from the Internet.