US Embassy 4th of July Parties Just Around the Corner, How’s Your Solicitation Going?

We last wrote about the Fourth of July in March (because this one celebrated it in March), and received the following note with an offer of warm milk. The pseudonymous, Zing writes:

“Perhaps you’d like a tall glass of warm milk to go along with that snark. Then you could peacefully dream of days gone by, when DOS was flush with cash and could afford lavish events with expensively catered meals. Until then, go ahead and continue passing judgement on Post’s national day. Like it or not, this is the new reality.”

Of course, we never, ever turn down an offer of warm milk, especially when it go so well with the snark:

“Thank you, Zing – I’d loved a tall glass of warm milk with that. Of course, I know this is the new reality, silly. And that’s why it deserves highlighting. If the State Department and its missions can no longer afford to fund these events, then it should have a simple ceremony and learn to live within its means. Instead of begging corporate sponsors to underwrite its birthday parties around the world. Because that’s what our diplomats are doing, begging corporate sponsors to feed the US embassy guests every 4th of July celebration.”

You can read the longer response here.

Today is about eight weeks to the official Fourth of July celebrations at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. If you’re lucky, you already had your celebration here and here.  And if you’re really lucky, you have a deep pocket political ambassador who already wrote a check to pay for the official 4th of July bill.  If you’re not so lucky, the next few weeks will be super busy as you try to rope in contributions from American companies, or local branches of American companies to help foot the bill for the official U.S. Government celebration on the Fourth of July. If you are in a country where there are tri-missions, like say Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, etc. you will have some serious competitions from other USG employees trying to rope in donations from a similar pool of contributors.

Depending on your state of mind, or success or the crappy response to your efforts, the following story may or may not resonate with you and your mission leadership.

A few years back, an FS-01 officer with the Department of State was posted as Deputy Chief of Mission and had also served as chargé d’affaires at a certain overseas post. Part of the time when he was charge, the Office of the Inspector General came to inspect the mission.  The OIG Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) and the Report of Inspection (IR) of the embassy contained critical remarks about the embassy’s Independence Day celebration. The FSO was faulted for “mounting a grandiose celebration mostly funded from intensive and excessive solicitations from American companies with local business offices.” The case went to the Grievance Board where it was dismissed (FSGB No. 2003-038):

“The Board found that grievant had failed to present any evidence in support of his allegation of discrimination.  It held that grievant’s disagreement with the judgment call in his IER on the costly July 4 trade promotion event failed to demonstrate that the OIG assessment was erroneous or falsely prejudicial.”

Here is part of the IER written by the ambassador-rank team leader of the inspection team:

However, I have faulted his judgment as Charge in mounting a grandiose Independence Day celebration funded mainly by intensive solicitation of funds from American companies in {Host Country}.  This event was a major departure from previous Embassy practice and cost about five times that of the bilateral {Host City 2}Embassy affair.  {Grievant} has acknowledged that the Independence Day event was overblown, indicating that he will take a more subdued approach to his future representational responsibilities when Charge.

The embassy’s efforts to promote U.S. commercial interests are laudable, but the Independence Day event and fund raising for other social events seems inappropriate.
. . .
The embassy engaged in extensive fundraising activities during FY—-, primarily to support the Fourth of July reception, but also for other representational events.  The other events were purportedly for the promotion of U.S. trade to {Host City 1}.  These fund raising activities supplemented the FY 2001 representation allotment of $13,300 and involved letters, phone calls, e-mails, and visits to American businesses located in the Republic of {Host Country}.  The Fourth of July event also took a significant amount of staff time and effort.  The activities significantly exceeded previous fundraising efforts.

For the Fourth of July reception in 2000, the Ambassador held a garden party at the residence at a cost of $15,500.  In XXXX the charge held a reception for 500 guests at a cost of $100,000 in cash and kind.  The event was held at a leading hotel and featured a meal prepared by three internationally known American chefs brought to {Host City 2} for the occasion.  The embassy paid $18,000 for a star performer to provide entertainment.

The aggressive solicitation of funds by the charge seems inappropriate and, in our view, the cost and scope of the event are excessive for Embassy {Host City 1}, particularly given the past Independence Day events hosted by the previous Ambassador and the more modest celebration mounted by Embassy {Host City 2}.  Embassy {Host City 2} spent approximately $18,700 for its Independence Day event in XXXX.  Fortunately, because Embassy {Host City 2} did not engage in solicitations for its event (although it had in prior years), there were not two embassies competing for funds from the American business community.

Embassy {Host City 1’s} Fourth of July event may have contravened 3 FAH-1 H-3243.1, entitled, “Economy and Good Taste,” which reads, in part, “lavish expenditures are questionable in most circumstances.”  In addition, the charge flew to {City 3} where he hired a car and driver to visit resident American companies in order to solicit funds.  According to 2 FAM 962.0-I, embassies should not make “a significant use of appropriated funds in order to conduct the solicitation . . ..”

What were the contributions like?  An example cited by the record of proceeding was that of the U.S. representative for Boeing who wanted to divide a $5,000 contribution between the US mission in . . . {Host City 1} and . . . {Host City 2}. The event cost $100,000 in cash and kind, so that gives you an idea how many solicitations that potentially amounted to.

Faulted for the entertainment by a star performer at $18,000, the FSO argued that the reception was followed by a performance by “an important figure in American pop musical culture,” and besides, the performer reduced her normal concert fee by 70% in order for the embassy to be able to present the concert.

A performer at a fire sale at $18,000 makes it acceptable? Makes one wonder why did they not invite two? Or three, since it was 70% off.

The FSO also contended that “Congress has repeatedly instructed the State Department to make promotion of American products a central foreign policy activity,” and cited an address given by former Deputy Secretary of State to the American Foreign Service Association stating that U.S. companies should expect active assistance from Embassy personnel, and claimed the policy was still in effect.

Here is the Grievance Board’s response:

We are not persuaded by this argument.  The Embassy’s MPP, which outlines for the Department key areas of mutual interest, and mission goals and objectives within specific areas and strategies for achieving them, contains no commercial platform.  Rather, as might be expected with the American Embassy in {Host Country} also located in {Host City 2} , Embassy {Host City 1’s} plan concentrates heavily on dialogue with the {Host City 1}, explaining U.S. military actions in various geographic regions, and furthering our mutual interests in democratization, human rights, religious freedom, civil society, etc.  In this, we defer to the Department to decide what the mission for Embassy {Host City 1} should be; we hold that it would be inappropriate for this Board to pass judgment on the Embassy’s program.
A post with 15 or fewer U.S. citizen direct-hire positions is a SEP.  Embassy {Host City 1} has six.  In both the draft and final inspection report, the inspectors laud the Embassy for pursuing limited U.S. business sales to the {Host City 1}, but note the Embassy had exaggerated the potential benefit of such trade promotion to justify fund raising for representational events from U.S. firms.  Faulting grievant for what it considered to be excessive fund raising activities was an OIG judgment call well within its mandate.

Then, the end all argument — but, but others did it, too!

Which also did not work, because it so happens that a politically appointed ambassador paid out of pocket for her Fourth of July party:

“If the previous ambassador, a political appointee, chose to greatly augment the embassy’s representational budget for the Fourth of July celebration in XXXX at her own expense, that was her own decision, one that did not significantly impact the embassy’s limited resources.  Grievant’s XXXX reception did represent a major departure from past practice.  The cost and source of funding of later July 4 events are not in evidence here, are outside the time period covered by the report, and are irrelevant to the challenged statement of a major departure from past practice.”

Even with political ambassadors with lots of dough to spare, we think that in these tough economic times, with unemployment, foreclosures, rising poverty in our cities across America, and a projected gross federal debt at $17.5 trillion in FY 2013, our embassies and consulates overseas should be more circumspect about the appearance of excess.

Happy days will not be here again for a long while.  And like folks in a debt hole with no fix in sight, modest celebrations ought to be norm not the exception.

Domani Spero

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Filed under Foreign Service, Grievance, Holidays and Celebrations, State Department, U.S. Missions

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