By Natalia Castro
When news broke of employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) putting the lives of veterans at risk with waiting lists to die, the country was outraged. When it became clear that these employees were not being terminated for their failures and mismanagement, Florida Senator Marco Rubio led bipartisan legislation that protected whistleblowers and provided management the authority to remove bad employees. Unfortunately, the VA is not the only department allowing bad employees to stay on the job despite grotesque violations of employee guidelines and even the law. Here we highlight some of the worst stories of civil service abuse in recent years and how they have been allowed to occur.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Some stories of abuse are obvious, like the Washington Times of April 2016 which reported on two senior VA officials who were responsible for the death of nearly 300 veterans on waiting lists, yet took over two years to even be proposed to be terminated. But as Senator Rubio argued in a May 2017 press release, this large-scale abuse flourished because of a culture of mismanagement.
Rubio explained, “To list just a few examples, one VA employee was arrested and spent time in jail for armed robbery. Another employee was caught watching pornography on the job. In my home state of Florida, there have been several instances of prescription drugs being diverted, gone missing from VA facilities… In all of these cases, the employees involved were ultimately allowed to keep their jobs, or resign with their benefits intact… It is clear that under existing civil service rules and pressure from unions and others, VA leaders have not been able to hold individuals accountable for their actions. Over and over again, we’ve seen the VA attempt to take disciplinary action against an employee, only to see the appeals process prove so complex, lengthy and lenient that real accountability was virtually impossible to achieve.”
To combat this problem, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act reduced the burden of proof required for removal under Title 5 of the Civil Service Reform Act Chapter 75 from a preponderance of evidence standard to substantial evidence for removal and expedited the removal process. As a result, firings for cause from the VA has increased by 26 percent since the bill’s passage, according to data retrieved from the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope. So far, the law has improved employee accountability within the VA, but other departments need the same accountability standards.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The EPA has been in need of employee accountability reforms for years. A March 2018 Heritage Foundation panel discussion revealed several ridiculous stories of abuse which have gone nearly completely unaddressed. In one case a GS-12 Public Affairs Specialist from Atlanta stole a video camera from her work and attempted to pawn the item. After being arrested and convicted of a felony, the employee was placed on a 30-day suspension and returned to her office. Similarly, another EPA employee was arrested for growing marijuana plants in her home and received seven months of paid leave for her time absent the office.
As Rubio highlighted, the difficulties associated with the appeal process protect poor performing employees.
A May 2016 Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Investigation sheds light onto a 10-year battle between the EPA and a Dallas GS-13 EPA employee. The report explains, “In March 2006, the OIG Dallas Field Office was informed that a GS-13 EPA Enforcement Officer was cited by the Dallas Police Department for the improper use of emergency lights on his personal vehicle while also being a registered sex offender… The EPA employee also possessed a make-shift badge which accompanied his administrative EPA Enforcement Officer credentials, which were displayed by the employee to the police officer. This led the police officer to believe that the employee was an EPA law enforcement officer. The EPA employee also used emergency lights affixed to his personal vehicle at an accident scene.”
A subsequent OIG investigation uncovered that the EPA employee had designed and purchased 20 similar “EPA enforcement badges”, a bullet proof vest, and installed emergency lights on his personal vehicle. This marked the second time the employee had been counseled by EPA officials for using emergency lights on his personal vehicle. Still in April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the employee for false personation of an officer and possession of counterfeit badges. Instead, the employee was moved to an administrative position within the office.
It was in August 2013 that the same employee was arrested again for violation of his parole, as a result of his arrest the OIG retrieved information that the employee may have viewed and possessed child pornography on his EPA issued computer. Finally, the employee was indefinitely suspended and, in January 2014, terminated.
That was until the decision was overturned on appeal and the EPA was forced to re-hire the employee. The employee worked at the EPA from September 2014 until January 2015 when the employee reached a settlement in which he agreed to resign from the EPA in exchange for certain consideration.
It is clear these employees should not be allowed to continue working or receive benefits from the federal government after abusing the law, but a poor and convoluted accountability system serves more to protect bad employees than serve good ones.
Department of Interior
Perhaps one of the most egregious incidents of failed employee accountability arises from the National Park Service (NPS). An October 2017 report the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform uncovered decades of mismanaged sexual misconduct allegations.
The report explains, “On June 14, 2016, the Committee held a hearing on oversight of the NPS… The investigation followed complaints from 13 current and former NPS employees from the River District. They wrote to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and submitted declarations describing incidents taking place over a period of 15 years, which they believed showed evidence of ‘discrimination, retaliation, and a sexually hostile work environment.’ The OIG investigation corroborated the claims of the complainants and found evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment in the [Grand Canyon National Park’s] River District. It also identified an additional 22 other individuals who reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and hostile work environments while working in the River District.”
After the misconduct was discovered several employees were forced to resign, seemingly marking a win for the accountability standards within the Department. Unfortunately, the Committee report continues to explain, that the Department of Interior OIG found in 2016 that the NPS River District has re-hired an employee who was forced to resign and, in contrast, did not renew employment of the complainant who sent the letter to Secretary Jewell.
During a second hearing regarding sexual harassment, misconduct, and a lack of accountability within the NPS, the committee discovered several employees originally forced to resign instead simply switched parks. One employee was moved to several parks, with several allegations of sexual misconduct made against him at each one, before being able to retire having served full career with the NPS.
Rep. Loudermilk proposes reform
While we might want to believe these stories are unique, U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk reminds us via his Twitter that these are actual common. With the #MeritMonday, Loudermilk has also told the story of an Auditor at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who was investigated for running a trucking business from his government office yet never faced criminal charges and was allowed to keep his job.
Loudermilk has introduced the MERIT Act of 2017, which aims at expanding the accountability reforms outlined in the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to all government agencies.
It is no surprise FedScope data reveals that only 0.53 percent of federal employees are terminated for cause each year. Employees have a 99.5 percent chance — of not being fired.
That is, no matter how corrupt, incompetent or insane they act.
We must pass legislation like the MERIT Act to enable leadership to remove poor performing employees and empower employees to speak up against misconduct. Rep. Loudermilk has introduced the MERIT Act to do just this.
Because at the end of the day, this is not merely a problem within the VA, so for the protection of all federal employees all department wide civil service reform must be passed.
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Natalia Castro is a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government.