When engaged couples choose silverware patterns, sparks can fly. When the United States government takes on the same task, we're talking Fourth of July fireworks.
The State Department got itself into such a mess choosing a pattern to replace the three different patterns in use at U.S. embassies worldwide that Congress held a hearing on the matter and is still sorting out the situation, after $2 million already has been spent.
Part of the problem is that the State Department has been unable to obtain an accurate assessment of just how many pieces of silverware it actually has in U.S. embassies.
"Almost anyone in the world over the age of 10 can count silverware," said an exasperated Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), chairman of the government operations subcommittee on legislation and national security, which held the hearing.
"The specter of a prestigious congressional panel interrogating witnesses about the silverware used at embassy functions is somewhat entertaining and far-fetched," said Rep. Frank Horton (R-N.Y.). "It would be funny if it weren't so sad."
The problem dates back to the turbulent '60s when a lot of embarrassing things were discovered about the actions of the U.S. government. This particular disclosure may not stand out, but it probably seemed important at the time the story broke that U.S. embassies were stocked with silverware purchased from Peru.
It was cheap.
The government decided cheap foreign stuff was embarrassing and began buying expensive made-in-America silver for its embassies, specifically the Marie Louise pattern from Blackington, Webster & Smith. Unfortunately, Blackington, Webster & Smith soon went out of business, so when more silverware was purchased for new embassies or to replenish sets at other posts, the State Department then turned to the Grand Colonial pattern by Wallace.
Thus, "By 1978, posts were using as many as three different silverware patterns," Donald J. Bouchard, a State Department witness, explained in a written testimony.
The Peruvian silverware was also "nearing the end of its useful life," Bouchard noted. So in 1979 (this is one of those situations where blame can be smeared across two Administrations), the State Department began what it called the silverware replacement program.
Just what that program actually is remains a matter of debate eight years later.
The Government Accounting Office, the nonpartisan accounting arm of the government, presented a report after an investigation that showed that the U.S. planned to purchase 156,343 pieces of silver, completely replacing the three other patterns being used at U.S. embassies with 14-piece place settings of a single new pattern, Embassy Scroll.
So far, the State Department has spent $2.1 million on only 72,026 pieces.
By the time of the hearing, when several congressmen were questioning the wisdom of the whole idea, State Department witnesses claimed the department never planned to buy 156,343 pieces, that it plans on buying only a few thousand more than it has now, an assertion that was quickly challenged.
The figure of more than 150,000 "has been substantiated by inter-office memos and cables stretching over years," said Joan McCabe of the General Accounting Office.
Said Bouchard, the State Department witness: "The discrepancy, which I agree is significant, is very difficult to explain."
At any rate, the State Department witnesses indicated that instead of completely replacing all the silverware, they were willing to allow embassies to mix Embassy Scroll and Marie Louise while replacing the Peruvian silver and Grand Colonial.
Brooks suggested that as the hearing approached, the State Department became "clairvoyant" about the wisdom of buying only half as much silver.
"Every now and then they get a burst of lightning over there," Brooks said of the State Department, "and they do something worthwhile. I think we ought to applaud them and congratulate them and thank God they do something right occasionally."
As for mixing Embassy Scroll and Marie Louise, Brooks said, "You can hardly tell the difference. . . . You have to put your glasses on to tell the difference."
What Brooks is most angry about, however, is the manner in which the contract was executed for the new Embassy Scroll silver with Lunt. The government wanted to keep the tools and dies used to cast the new pattern so that as it had to replace damaged and lost silver over the years, it would not have to keep going to new patterns and would have the freedom of shopping the bid around, instead of going to the one company that owned the tools and dies.
The government asked 11 silver companies to submit bids. But upon learning that part of the deal was that the government would keep the tools and dies, only four companies responded. The State Department eliminated two of the offers because they felt the quality of work was poor. Both of the two remaining companies, Towle and Lunt, said that they would not sell the tools and dies to the government.
The State Department went ahead and chose Lunt, but only a few people at the State Department over the years actually knew that the government did not get the tools and dies in the deal. Brooks is angry because he felt that after the government decided it could not obtain the tools and dies, it should have gone back to the original 11 companies again for bids under those new conditions, angling for a better deal. He's also hopping mad that the government did not get the tools and dies, because now, every time new silver is needed, the government either has to go back to Lunt for Embassy Scroll at whatever price Lunt quotes, or it has to shop around for yet another pattern and pay the expense of manufacturing yet another set of tools and dies, which costs about $100,000.
'How Not to Do It'
The problem comes into play immediately because the contract with Lunt expired last June and the State Department still needs to buy a few thousand more pieces.
"You would think that every yuppie housewife in the United States could buy silverware cheaper and at a better deal than this one," Brooks said. "You know, half the people in the United States can order silverware. . . . They'd know how to do it and they wouldn't botch it up. . . . You'd have to work at it to do it wrong.
"And what if this was $100 million instead of $2 million? This is a classic case of how not to do it."
To the State Department witness, John Conway, who handled the contract, Brooks said, "I just say it's poor management and you were the one who signed off on it and I think it's disgraceful."
"Well," said Conway, "it's my responsibility."
" . . . If you did it for me," said Brooks, "I'd be very unhappy."
"Yes, sir," said Conway.
Not in the Files
The deviation that allowed Conway to accept Lunt's addendum stating the company would keep the tools and dies also does not happen to be in the files.
"The file is 8 years old," Conway said. "I don't have any idea (where the deviation finding is)."
It was also noted at the hearing that since handling the silver contract, Conway has been promoted to a higher position as procurement executive for the entire department.
"It scares me to death," Brooks said, "to think that he is doing all these things so badly."
Asked later if he would like to respond to Brooks' statements, Conway said, "I'd just as soon not."
Embassies receiving the new Embassy Scroll silver have been instructed to sell their old silver or send it back to the State Department. But some GAO representatives, traveling abroad on other business, checked five embassies that had received new silver and found they all had just kept the old silver, too.
Of 288 reports received by the State Department from 403 posts, only 20 embassies were found to have disposed of their old silver in the proper manner, according to a State Department source.