Senior staffers at the Securities and Exchange Commission spent hours surfing pornographic websites on government-issued computers while they were being paid to police the financial system, an agency watchdog says.
The SEC's inspector general conducted 33 probes of employees looking at explicit images in the past five years, according to a memo obtained late Thursday by The Associated Press.
The memo says 31 of those probes occurred in the 2 1/2 years since the financial system teetered and nearly crashed.
It was written by SEC Inspector General David Kotz in response to a request from Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
The memo was first reported Thursday evening by ABC News. It summarizes findings of past inspector general probes and reports some shocking findings:
A senior attorney at the SEC's Washington headquarters spent up to eight hours a day looking at and downloading pornography. When he ran out of hard drive space, he burned the files to CDs or DVDs, which he kept in boxes around his office. He agreed to resign, an earlier watchdog report said.
An accountant was blocked more than 16,000 times in a month from visiting websites classified as "Sex" or "Pornography." Yet, he still managed to amass a collection of "very graphic" material on his hard drive by using Google images to bypass the SEC's internal filter, according to an earlier report from the inspector general. The accountant refused to testify in his defence and received a 14-day suspension.
Seventeen of the employees were "at a senior level," earning salaries of up to US$222,418.
The number of cases jumped from two in 2007 to 16 in 2008. The cracks in the financial system emerged in mid-2007 and spread into full-blown panic by the fall of 2008.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said it was "disturbing that high-ranking officials within the SEC were spending more time looking at porn than taking action to help stave off the events that put our nation's economy on the brink of collapse."
He said in a statement that SEC officials "were preoccupied with other distractions" when they should have been overseeing the growing problems in the financial system.
An SEC spokesman declined to comment Thursday night.