B-231542, Aug 24, 1988, 67 Comp.Gen. 592

B-231542: Aug 24, 1988

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Appropriations/Financial Management - Appropriation Availability - Purpose Availability - Specific Purpose Restrictions - Personal Expenses/Furnishings Voice of America radio broadcaster who rented a tuxedo for the purpose of attending an official function where formal dress was mandatory. May not be reimbursed from public funds if it is shown that attendance at such functions was part of his regular duties and that formal attire was a personal furnishing which the employee may reasonably be required to provide at his own expense. Formal dress is required only rarely for radio broadcasters at comparable positions in his agency. Because there was conflicting factual information in the report submitted with the employee's request for reconsideration of the denial of his claim for reimbursement.

B-231542, Aug 24, 1988, 67 Comp.Gen. 592

Appropriations/Financial Management - Appropriation Availability - Purpose Availability - Specific Purpose Restrictions - Personal Expenses/Furnishings Voice of America radio broadcaster who rented a tuxedo for the purpose of attending an official function where formal dress was mandatory, may not be reimbursed from public funds if it is shown that attendance at such functions was part of his regular duties and that formal attire was a personal furnishing which the employee may reasonably be required to provide at his own expense. If, on the other hand, formal dress is required only rarely for radio broadcasters at comparable positions in his agency, the rental expense may be reimbursed. Because there was conflicting factual information in the report submitted with the employee's request for reconsideration of the denial of his claim for reimbursement, GAO sets out the applicable principles and instructs the agency to pay or deny the claim, depending on how the conflicting information is resolved.

Ghassan Ghosn - Request for Reconsideration:

This decision is based on the claimant's request of April 27, 1988, that we reconsider our decision Z-2864991, June 8, 1987, disallowing his claim for reimbursement as a Voice of America (VOA) employee for the cost of renting a tuxedo. As explained below, because of a conflict in the factual statements of the VOA's parent organization, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the claimant's VOA division chief, we are unable to determine whether there are grounds to authorize reimbursement. We will, however, set forth the principles governing the claimant's right to reimbursement. We suggest that the VOA resolve the factual discrepancy and authorize or deny reimbursement accordingly.

BACKGROUND

Ghassan Ghosn, an international radio broadcasting employee of the VOA, submitted a claim to the GAO Claims Group in the amount of $72.72 for the rental of a tuxedo. The employee-claimant was assigned to attend a function at the Kennedy Center hosted by the Lebanese ambassador to the United States, for the purpose of conducting interviews and generally covering the event for subsequent broadcast to Arabic-speaking audiences. The invitation to the function indicated that the required attire was "black tie." The claimant had never been asked to attend a "black tie" affair before and did not own a tuxedo. His supervisor advised him to rent one, assuring him that he would be reimbursed.

In order to determine whether reimbursement was justified in this case, our Claims Group asked the employee to resubmit his claim, attaching an administrative report from his agency. He did so, on April 9, 1987, but the report was from the Chief, Financial Operations Division, USIA. The administrative report was distinctly negative and did not support the claim or the claimant's justification for reimbursement. It stated:

"The Agency has in its employment other personnel holding similar positions similar to the claimant's such as television, radio and magazine correspondents and reporters who are required to attend many different functions some of which may require the wearing of 'formal attire' in the performance of their official duties.

"The Agency has consistently denied reimbursement for the rental of tuxedos to its correspondents and reporters based on Comptroller General decisions. Individuals in these positions could reasonably be required to wear a tuxedo at some time in the performance of the work for which they have been employed."

It was on the basis of this report that our Claims Group adjudicator denied the claim.

DISCUSSION

The general rule, as set forth in 3 Comp.Gen. 433 (1924) and many subsequent cases, is that most items of apparel are considered to be the personal responsibility of the employee and may not be provided at public expense, even when worn in the course of public business. exception in certain cases where the item of clothing in question is not a usual part of every employee's wardrobe and where an occasion requiring him to wear such clothing on official business arises very infrequently. See, for example, B-164811, July 28, 1969, in which we authorized reimbursement to certain Justice Department attorneys for rental costs of formal cutaway coats and striped pants required at that time by the Supreme Court to be worn by all attorneys appearing before it. We noted in that case that the individual attorneys claiming reimbursement were only occasionally required to appear before the Supreme Court and it was therefore unreasonable to expect them to purchase such formal attire.

The conditions for applying this exception were set forth in some detail in a 1924 decision, 3 Comp.Gen. 433. In determining whether the "equipment" in that case, laboratory coats should be expected to be furnished by the employee at his or her own expense, we said that the decision turns on "whether the 'equipment' is to be used by the employee in connection with his regular duties or only in emergencies or at infrequent intervals."

The claimant is quite familiar with those decisions. In his request for reconsideration of his claim, he reminds us of B-164811, discussed above, and suggests that his situation is quite analogous to that of the Justice Department attorneys for whom we authorized reimbursement.

We think the claimant has accurately characterized our decisions. If, in fact, he or employees in similar positions at the VOA are seldom called upon to wear formal clothing on official business and he had no reason to anticipate that this requirement would arise, we think he can properly be reimbursed for the rental costs he incurred. In support of his contention, the claimant submits a letter written by the chief of the North Africa, Near East and South Asia Division, VOA (the division in which the claimant works) to the Chief, Administrative Operations, VOA. The chief takes sharp issue with the basis we offered for rejecting the original claim-- that is, the administrative report we received from the USIA. He states:

"Let me point out that I have been Chief of this division for a little over two years now-- we have approximately 150 broadcasters, and in the entire two years, Ghosn (the claimant) is the only one who has been obliged to wear formal attire to cover a story.

"Again, I contend that Comptroller General decisions denying reimbursement do not apply; individuals who are IRB's (International Radio Broadcasters) cannot 'reasonably be required to attend' such functions and certainly the allegation that employees of Gus' (the claimant) level (he was a GG 11, equivalent to the GS scale, at the time of the event) are 'required to attend many functions requiring formal attire' is patently untrue."

We are not in a position to resolve the disparity between the USIA report provided with the first submission of the claim and the above quoted statement of the claimant's VOA chief. If it is administratively determined by the Administrator of USIA or his designee that formal attire is not reasonably related to the carrying out of Mr. Ghosn's duties, the claim may be paid if otherwise correct.