FIRST ON FOX: Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is demanding the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) audit and publish every single Biden administration agency head’s schedule after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin flew under the radar for several days while he was hospitalized last month.
'I was shocked – as surely you were too – to learn Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spent much of the past month recovering from surgery, which he failed to disclose even to the Deputy Secretary or Commander-in-Chief,' Ernst wrote in a letter sent to the OMB on Tuesday.
After an elective surgical procedure, Austin returned to work in a virtual capacity on Jan. 5 while still hospitalized, even authorizing airstrikes on Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis. He was released last Monday. Despite being admitted to Walter Reed on Jan.1, the Pentagon didn't inform the public, press or Congress until Jan. 5.
Officials also acknowledged that the White House had not been informed about Austin's hospitalization until Jan. 4.
'If true, this begs the question, is Secretary Austin working from home so frequently that he can disappear into the hospital for an entire week to undergo invasive surgery, and folks simply just think he’s working from home again? When department secretaries do work from home, are they as nonresponsive as someone under general anesthesia?' Ernst probed.
Ernst argued that during Austin's hospitalization, Biden vacationed in St. Croix and General Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Robin Carnahan worked mainly from Missouri, defying the agency's return-to-office plan with an 11% office space utilization rate.
'The Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government state that 'without a strong tone at the top to support an internal control system… results… may not be… acted upon to remediate deficiencies.' This principle of risk mitigation and fraud prevention applies perfectly to remote work and telework abuse and fraud,' Ernst wrote.
'I am left drawing the unavoidable conclusion that the ‘tone at the top’ across the Biden administration has undercut your efforts. With the new year comes new year’s resolutions. I would encourage yours to be to redouble your efforts to get folks back in the office. That should include agency leadership as well,' she continued.
Ernst expects the OMB to respond by Feb. 23 with what additional steps the agency has planned to get federal employees back in the office.
'Given the American people no longer trust senior leaders in the Biden administration to be where they say they are, every agency and department head should publish their schedule online,' Ernst wrote. 'And since even President Biden can’t trust leaders to be where they say they are, you must audit those calendars, on a quarterly basis at minimum, and let us know if leaders continue to pull the wool over our eyes.'
Ernst's letter comes as part of her increased effort to crack down on federal employees who are abusing telework. Last year, Ernst urged the Inspector General to launch a federal investigation into whether some government agencies are overpaying remote workers who receive a Washington, D.C., salary but live in a lower cost of living state – a problem she says was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote work spread rapidly as a way to keep some industries afloat during nationwide stay-at-home orders, and government agencies were no exception. However, Ernst said the government is typically inept at keeping track of its workers, leading to 'an avalanche' of problems that started years before the pandemic.
Fox News' Louis Casiano contributed to this report.