Big Box Watch: Berkeley seeks reimbursement for alleged Office Depot overcharging

As reported earlier, Berkeley, CA has accused Office Depot of overcharging the city over a quarter of a million dollars for office supplies. According to the Berkeley Daily Planet, City Manager Phil Kamlarz has asked for a return of the money.

The article goes on to state that while Office Depot has only issued a standard “we are looking into the matter/taking it very seriously” form letter, Berkeley is by no means the first to find itself in this situation:

• Following a state audit last year, Office Depot agreed to reimburse the state of California $2.5 million for overcharges incurred during a two-year period of $57 million in state office supply purchases.

• A 2008 North Carolina state audit concluded that Office Depot had overcharged North Carolina state agencies by more than $294,000 over a six-month period. Among the charges in the state audit was that the company inflated base retail prices on the bid so that it would look like it was offering a higher discount than it actually was, included unauthorized items in shipments during the course of the contract, and switched brands so that the value of the products shipped to North Carolina was less than what was contracted and paid for. In a prepared news release, North Carolina State Auditor Leslie Merritt said that “There are numerous reports that Office Depot has engaged in a pattern of overcharging and violating state contracts in Georgia, California, Nebraska, Florida, and now North Carolina.”

• Last year, Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley found that Office Depot overcharged the state as much as 400 percent ($1.06 for staples that were supposed to be bought for 21 cents, for example) on purchased items included in the state’s $3 million per year, three-year contract with the company.

• Also in 2008, the state of Georgia terminated its $40 million per year office supply contract with Office Depot over charges by state officials that the company “repeatedly overcharged and mispriced items for state employees,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

• Earlier this year, the Missouri attorney general’s office began an investigation into allegations that Office Depot had overcharged government agencies, nonprofit agencies and charitable groups in that state by using “bait-and-switch” tactics.

So while this article is not really an update to the ongoing investigation (other than the City Manager’s public request for repayment), it goes a long way to highlighting some of the previous allegations and shady dealings that Office Depot has been involved in.

What I find morbidly curious is that this article appeared in my inbox right alongside a notice that Office Depot has opened a new “Caring Connections” website to help teach people about volunteerism, citing the Office Depot Foundation’s previous work providing college supplies to foster kids. While I’ll never turn my nose up at a charitable action that actually helps people (the kids got their school supplies, and were better off for it), it seems like parading it around now during a time of inter-company crisis is a cheap PR move. Maybe they can wrangle up some volunteers to help them pack their bags when this whole mess is over.

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