That time EPA contractors built secret man caves in a warehouse

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Workplace issue: When “vermin feces” is the second-biggest issue in your facility, you know you’ve got problems.

The latest in an intermittent series looking back at groundbreaking, newsmaking, appalling and amusing events in government history.

Two things are true of warehouses: working in them can be tedious, and they tend to be filled with boxes, equipment and other materials that can be moved around and arranged in creative ways.

Those two factors came to a head in 2013 at the Environmental Protection Agency, when GovExec broke the news that contract workers had built secret “man caves” in a cavernous warehouse the agency was leasing in Landover, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C.  

The story started the way a lot of great journalism does: with a reporter delving into the details of one of the thousands of government reports issued every year by federal agencies, congressional committees and independent watchdogs. In this case, that reporter was Eric Katz and the document he uncovered was an EPA inspector general’s audit of operations at the warehouse.

The IG found that contractors used partitions, screens and piled-up boxes to hide secret rooms from security cameras in the 70,000 square-foot facility. EPA had leased the warehouse—used for inventory storage—from the General Services Administration for $750,000 a year.

The warehouse rooms were secret for a reason—they contained TVs, refrigerators, radios, microwaves, chairs and couches. They also were stocked with personal items, including photos, pin-ups, calendars, clothing, books, magazines and videos.

The contract workers weren’t exactly living in the lap of luxury, though. Indeed, it seems the warehouse was practically a Superfund site. Its “deplorable conditions” included corrosion, vermin feces and “pervasive” mold, the IG reported.

The story quickly struck a chord nationally. ABC News picked up on it, noting that EPA had issued a stop-work order to the contractor in the wake of the IG’s report. The New York Daily News marveled at the weight-lifting equipment in a makeshift fitness center in the warehouse. In a story categorized as “Weird News,” HuffPost reported that EPA “has cleaned up a lot of messes, but this one is like no other.”

EPA quickly moved to review operations at other warehouses, and didn’t find any similar problems, Katz later reported. “The conditions of concern identified at the Landover warehouse do not exist at any other agency warehouse or storage facility,” an agency spokesman said, “and we will ensure that those conditions do not recur at an EPA facility.”

The buzzkills at the IG’s office pledged to conduct their own review, but evidence of systematic slackerism at the agency never emerged. Of course, that was nine years ago, and there are a lot of government-controlled warehouses. So who knows how many hidden hideaways there might be at federal facilities today? 

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site. 

NEXT STORY: Appeals board rules that feds disclosing discrimination will get no whistleblower protections

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