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Have You Heard About These “Dramatic Changes” Coming to AFSA?

— By Domani Spero

Update below.  Scroll down to view comments from AFSA State VP Matthew Asada and AFSA Retiree Rep Edward Marks

FS employees join the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) for many reasons, one of which is representation by AFSA legal counsel in EEO process or in criminal/administrative cases.  AFSA’s website strongly advised that “employees seek guidance and representation from AFSA or private counsel prior to agreeing to any interview and especially a voluntary interview.

We are hearing that “dramatic changes” are in the works without AFSA membership approval.  The changes reportedly will affect the nature of AFSA, potentially reduce services to members and potentially compromise the privacy of AFSA’s clients.

As we understand it, there are two possible contentious issues:

  • All new AFSA cases will now reportedly go through the State-VP who allegedly will “independently decide” whether or not they merit the attention of the AFSA lawyers.
  • Names of all AFSA clients will reportedly be added to an AFSA database of cases. The database we’re told will be maintained by the State VP.  The database will allegedly be accessible to two non-attorney staff members and all Board members.

These changes are reportedly intended to “improve AFSA’s service” and “more efficiently use AFSA’s resources” but have apparently already resulted in the resignation of AFSA’s most senior labor-management staff member.

In a letter to AFSA President Robert Silverman leaked to this blog, former State VP Daniel Hirsch expressed serious concerns about these reported changes, writing:

“For as long as I have been an AFSA member, AFSA members have had direct, initial access to AFSA’s attorneys and management specialists, who were the first, and usually the only, people in AFSA to hear the details of a member’s case. AFSA attorneys are legally bound by two sets of laws to maintain client confidentiality, and AFSA clients have routinely been told that no other party will learn the details of their case unless the client authorizes disclosure on a limited case by case basis to named individuals. This ensured in the past that every dues-paying member had access to the free legal advice paid for by their dues, and the right to receive that advice from a party who was objective, knowledgeable, and bound to protect their privacy.
[…]
[T]he idea of having a single, untrained individual serve as gatekeeper to AFSA services also has enormous potential for abuse.
[…]
The inclusion of names on AFSA’s client database is likewise a dramatic departure from past practice. When the database was created during my term, the issue of names was thoroughly discussed by AFSA’s attorneys and by AFSA’s membership staff. All agreed that the inclusion of names would compromise privacy, reduce client trust in AFSA, and serve no useful purpose. It was also noted that the Department’s staff does not include names in their similar databases (using instead case numbers assigned by staff members) and that the inclusion of PII in a database run over State Department computers, without appropriate approvals, is contrary to State Department policy.”

We’ve checked the AFSA website but there’s nothing there about these changes.  So we asked AFSA.  One AFSA Constituency Representative told us:

“No change – AFSA has a duty and a keen interest to represent all as the elected bargaining agent when the employee has been hit by Mgmt. […] But AFSA needs to examine the range and content of its grievance case load and try and figure out what the systemic problems are that are subjects of repeated grievances. We need to use that data to fix the system.  We are trying to fix the leaking pipes and not just keep emptying the buckets every day.  To do that we have to understand the case load and do analysis.  That requires data.”   

On August 29, 2013, we emailed State VP Matthew Asada with the following questions:

I heard that as AFSA’s State VP you will now decide whether or not new AFSA cases merit the attention of AFSA lawyers, is this true?  The AFSA client-lawyers are covered by confidentiality, where does that leave you? What is the rationale behind this change?

There’s also talk that names of all AFSA clients will be put in a database maintained by you and non-lawyer staff of AFSA. Can you understand why this could be troubling to the AFSA membership?

Can you confirm that these new policy changes has already resulted in the resignation of AFSA’s most senior labor-management staff member?

Will AFSA be sending out an ALDAC on these changes to inform its membership?

We did not get a direct response to our questions. We did get an email from Mr. Asada, a rejoiner response to the AFSA Constituency Representative’s email above on August 30:

“As  Tex [AFSA constituent rep] noted, there has been no change to our existing policies. All of us at AFSA are interested in ensuring that we are responsible custodians of AFSA’s resources and that we use those resources – entrusted to us by our members – to advance the overall interests of the Foreign Service and its 16,000 members (several of whom are avid Diplopundit readers).  We want our members to know how we are working on their behalf and communications is a key part of that (we recently brought on Kristen Fernekes as AFSA’s new Director of Communications).”

The response above, unfortunately, reminds us of a teevee talk show where guests often answer with a non-answer. So let’s add more questions, because why not?

  • When new clients have to see an AFSA Governing Board Member  who decides whether dues-paying members need to see AFSA’s lawyers or not, instead of having direct access to AFSA’s lawyers, isn’t that a departure from previous practice?  Doesn’t this constitute a change that the membership should be aware of?
  • Are AFSA Governing Board Members covered by client confidentiality?  If not, what kind of confidentiality agreement protects AFSA clients?
  • Since cases are available in a database accessible to over a dozen people, how safe is that data from accidental disclosure? What protection does AFSA employ to ensure protection from unauthorized disclosures?
  • What are the consequences for disclosure of this data?
  • Do AFSA members have an option to opt-out from the data collection?

We understand AFSA’s interest in learning from the data of its grievance case load but, wouldn’t it make more sense to look at cases resolved in … maybe the last five years, instead of new cases?

Let’s pause for a moment here and imagine this. Say I have a potential sexual harassment case against an official at the State Department or at AFSA.   I go see if I can get legal help from AFSA. Instead of speaking directly with an AFSA attorney, I have to see an AFSA Veep to make the case why I need legal representation. Before the AFSA Veep decides whether or not I need a lawyer, he/she would have to ask me questions about my sexual harassment case. That means details. Even if I get an AFSA lawyer, that still means the AFSA Veep knows the details of my case. They then put my name in an AFSA database. The database is accessible to about a dozen or so people. If/If somebody leaks my case (even accidentally) to the official identified as the other party in my case, who pays for breach of confidentiality?

See why that is disconcerting?

Finally, elections. Remember in the 2009 elections when there was such a hubbub about the use of an email list during that nasty campaign?  That election went all the way to the Department of Labor and DOL ordered a DOL-supervised AFSA election to avoid another food fight. (See AFSA Received Letter from DOL. 11 Days Ago…).

Yep, that’s one other reason why folks might get a bad feeling about a database.

We tracked down Daniel Hirsch, the immediate past State VP for AFSA who served two terms, for comments.  He sent us the following response:

As a former AFSA VP, I can’t imagine what is meant by “AFSA’s resources.” As AFSA VP I, like my predecessors, managed member resources, paid for by member dues, to ensure that they were available to dues-paying members when needed. Yes, there is more demand now on those resources, because there are more members. More members pay more dues, so AFSA can afford to accommodate the increased demand.That’s why, and how, AFSA hired an additional attorney and an additional legislative assistant last year. 

AFSA is not a for-profit organization, and it has nearly 4 million dollars, and growing, in reserve already. What is responsible about obliging members to violate their right to confidentiality in order to allow one official to decide whether to allow them access to the services they pay for? Does it increase the efficiency of an organization, whose purpose is to help its members, to save money by helping fewer members? On what basis will that decision be made? And what qualifies one official to make it alone? 

If you have an opinion or questions about this matter contact your AFSA Governing Board representatives. If AFSA releases a clarification about these changes or non-changes, we’ll have a follow-up post.

 

Updated on 9/13/13 @1557 EST

Below is an email response from Edward Marks, Retiree Representative, AFSA Governbing Board (same position on last GB):

“You should be careful about jumping into discussions of situations with inadequate or partisan information. Your article is not factual, refecting paniced and uninformed reactions by people with vested interest in the existing situation. A situation which many find inadequate when dealiing with the Department on systemic as well as personal questions. The former VP Daniel Hirsch was a vocal , and distinctly minority, obstacle to all change proposed in the previous Governing Board and obviously is continuing to oppose change today. He has of course his views, but they are distinctly parti pris. Please do not pursue the media habit of of giving equal coverage (although in this case you did not even do that) to two sides without at least identifying the partisan affiliations.”

Below is an email response from Matthew K. Asada | Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association

“Again, there has been no change in structure of AFSA’s legal department nor in the processing of inquiries or cases.  AFSA leadership is constantly reviewing the organization with the intent of improving service, advocacy, fiscal management, etc.  AFSA would be remiss if it did not do this.

Any changes would go to the AFSA Governing Board for decision in accordance with its bylaws.  But again, there has been NO decision to make any such change.

We welcome feedback from our members as to how we can improve service and encourage them to contact us with their ideas and suggestions.”

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“This Week With George Stephanopoulos” Features Former Embassy Tripoli DCM Gregory Hicks

— By Domani Spero

FSO Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tripoli (July 2012-October 2012) was one of George Stephanopoulos’s Sunday morning guests on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on September 8.  Below is an excerpt from the transcript:

Via ABC News

Via ABC News

via ABC News

via ABC News

Read the full transcript here.

Asked for a response by ABC News, a spokesman said the State Department has “not punished Mr. Hicks in any way” and that “the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi.” Full statement below:

State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach’s statement to ABC News:

The State Department has not punished Mr. Hicks in any way. We appreciate his exemplary service on the evening of September 11 and his long career as a member of the Foreign Service.

Although the State Department ordinarily does not discuss the details of personnel matters publicly, because he has alleged mistreatment, we will state generally that the circumstances that led to his departure from Libya was entirely unrelated to any statements he may have made relating to the attack in Benghazi. When Mr. Hicks voluntarily curtailed his assignment, he was in the position of finding another assignment in between standard assignment cycles. The Department made significant efforts to find him a new position at his level, including identifying an overseas position which he declined and succeeded in finding him a short-tour assignment in the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, pending the next assignment cycle. We continue to value his service and are working with him through the normal personnel process and assignment timetable to identify his next permanent assignment.

The State Department is deeply committed to meeting its obligation to protect employees and the State Department does not tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on ANY ISSUE, including Benghazi.

 

Of course, it would be a lot easier to believe Mr. Gerlach’s statement but for Peter Van Buren.  And let’s not even start with a gag order as a condition for a resolution within the State Department.  (By the way, speaking of gag orders, FSO Russell Sveda who was gay and went through a 14-year bureaucratic battle with State got around the media gag order by speaking to ADST’s Oral History Project, a non-media entity who published the interview online.  Smart.  You may read his account here).

Back to the Hicks affair — in May this year after Mr. Hicks appearance in Congress, a couple of unnamed US Embassy Tripoli employees dished to Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress about Mr. Hicks performance as deputy chief of mission in Tripoli (see EXCLUSIVE: Embassy Staff Undercut ‘Whistleblower’ Testimony On Benghazi).  Apparently, this includes “a lack of diplomatic protocol” by “going to a meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister Mohammed Magarief in a t-shirt, cargo pants, and baseball cap” and allegedly being “too upset to wear a suit.”  I don’t know about you, but “several troubling incidents” criticizing a senior officer’s performance at post ought to include more than simple bad choice in clothes.

What did he do that necessitates a curtailment?  We’ll never know.

Mr. Hicks on his May 8 testimony before the Oversight Committee also said this:

“After I arrived in Tripoli as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) on July 31, 2012, I fast became known as the Ambassador’s “bulldog,” because of my decisive management style.”

But why would anyone need a “bulldog” in a collegial embassy setting?

The American Bulldogs is one of the Top 10 Banned Dog Breeds (banned in Denmark, Singapore and various municipalities, the dog’s specialty is catching feral hogs and it is known for its very high pain threshold).  Meanwhile, the American Kennel Club (AKC) also says that a Bulldog’s “disposition should be equable and kind, resolute and courageous (not vicious or aggressive), and demeanor should be pacific and dignified.” Take your pick.

Voluntold Curtailment

We don’t know Mr. Hicks and we’ve never meet him.  We have previously sent him a couple of emails but those were never acknowledged, so we’re not e-pals either.  We know that Tripoli was his first assignment as a DCM, so there is no paper trail on OIG inspections that we can locate.  The folks who worked for him (at least those who talked to the press) could only point to a bad choice in wardrobe as an example of bad performance. By his own admission, he “voluntary curtailed” from his assignment in Tripoli barely three months into his tour. Following the Benghazi attack, the Libya mission went on ordered departure. Curtailment during OD is widely viewed as a “no fault” curtailment, which in turn means, there would be no career repercussions.

But people inside the building also know that if you say “no” to management’s suggestion of voluntary curtailment, you risk incurring a “loss of confidence.”  Even if you say “no,” the chief of mission can still request the Director General of the Foreign Service for curtailment. Except in this case, management will be required to: (1) Include background information on any incidents that support the request(2) Confirm that the employee has been informed of the request and the reasons therefore; and (3) Confirm that the employee has been advised that he or she may submit comments separately.  In short, the bosses will need to do the work to justify an involuntary curtailment.

So when your leadership suggest that you take a “voluntary” curtailment, you can either say “yes” even if you don’t want to shorten your assignment, or you can say “no” and still be curtailed anyway.

Perhaps when people sign their names to a “voluntary” curtailment request that they don’t want, it should be appropriately called “voluntold”curtailment?

How will this end?

Assignments in the Foreign Service are typically handed out a year before the actual job rotation. So if one curtails from an assignment, one does not have a lot of jobs to choose from and may have to take what is normally called a “bridge” assignment.  An assignment between your previous job and the next assignment with a start date in the foreseeable future.  We don’t know what happened in this case but — paging —

Rep. Jackie “I think this committee will help you get a good onward assignment” Speier — where are you?

This Week’s interview did not indicate Mr. Hicks’ current assignment.  But a couple of things we should note:

1) Mr. Hicks ran for State-VP in the 2013 AFSA election and failed in his quest to represent the Foreign Service. (see AFSA Elections 2013: Unofficial Results, Asada Defeats Hicks2013 AFSA Election Results: 3,505 Out of 16,000+ Members Voted, Plus Vote Count By Candidate).  His congressional testimony occurred just prior to the AFSA elections where he ran in the slate of the IAFSA Coalition.  It was a typical low turn out election.   If there were sympathy votes, there were not enough to overcome  his closest opponent; he lost by about a hundred votes.

2) If Mr. Hicks was not in trouble before, he could be in trouble now for going on “This Week…” without prior clearance under FAM 4170 Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching.  This is something that similarly “got” Mr. Van Buren in hot water during his very public battle with the State Department bureaucracy (After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren).

The question now is how far will this escalate.

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Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Nationals to End Sept 30, Or How to Save One Interpreter At a Time

— By Domani Spero

In June this year, we blogged about the potential termination of the SIV program for Iraqis who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq (See Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program: Potential Termination on September 30, 2013). The recent OIG inspection report on the US Embassy in Baghdad and it constituent posts indicate that the impending termination of Iraqi SIVs at the end of September this year has not been publicized because US Embassy Baghdad, and the Bureaus of Consular Affairs (CA), and Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) expect the program to be extended.

On September 12, USCIS sent a reminder and issued a statement that authorization for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqi nationals who worked for or on behalf of the United States government will expire on Sept. 30, 2013. Individuals applying under this program, including family members, must be admitted to the United States or adjust their statuses before Oct. 1, 2013.

The program was created by Section 1244 of Public Law 110-181, as amended by Public Law 110-242. It covers Iraqi nationals who—during the period between March 20, 2003, and the present—have been employed by or on behalf of the United States government in Iraq for a period of not less than one year. The expiration date also applies to spouses and unmarried child(ren) accompanying or following to join the principal applicant.

As announced at its inception, the Iraqi SIV program will expire on Sept. 30, 2013, at 11:59 p.m. EDT unless Congress extends the program. After Sept. 30, 2013, USCIS will reject any petitions or applications filed based on the Iraqi SIV program. Beginning Oct. 1, 2013, USCIS will suspend processing of any pending Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, or Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, filed based on the Iraqi SIV program.

For updates, please check our website at www.uscis.gov or call the National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283. You can also find useful information on the U.S Embassy in Iraq’s website at http://iraq.usembassy.gov/siv-special.html.

If the program will expire in three weeks, and the individual has to be admitted to the United States before October 1, 2013, the door is left with just a crack.  Who can get an SIV in three weeks and slip into that crack?

Matt Zeller,  a United States Army veteran of the Afghan War and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project writes about a specific visa case, under a similar program in Afghanistan:

From 2011 until July 2013, Janis waited for word that the State Department had approved his visa. Several times the US embassy in Kabul asked him to file additional paperwork and even appear for medical and personal interviews. At every appointment Janis would ask how much longer the process would take, but no one could ever give him a more specific answer other than “months to years.”[…] Going through this complicated process educated me beyond imagination. I’m convinced that the current visa program, while well intentioned, cannot succeed as designed. […] for Janis to receive his visa, organizations such as the FBI, Homeland Security, and State Department all had to individually approve his visa application during their security background investigation, using their own individual opaque databases.

Read One Veteran’s Battle to Bring His Afghan Interpreter to the United States.

Something else Mr. Zeller did.  He started a Change.org petition and he and Janis did media interviews (by phone from Kabul). Yahoo! News reportedly published the first story about Janis on Sept. 6, and within hours the petition had thousands of signatures.  Here is the HuffPo Live video interview.

Mr. Zeller, a forceful advocate for the person who saved his life also asked supporters to contact their members of Congress and get these elected officials to write and call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the State Department, and anyone else they thought could help expedite Janis’ visa for approval. Note that visa petitions are approved by DHS, once approved, only then can visas be issued by State.  By the time it was over, and 104,588 signatures later, Mr. Zeller won his campaign to secure a visa for Janis Shinwari, his interpreter while he was in Afghanistan.  Now he is on a mission to save his other interpreter, Ehsan.

We admire what Mr. Zeller is doing for his interpreters.   But we worry about applicants who qualify for SIVs both in Afghanistan and Iraq but do not have vocal advocates for their cases.   In a perfect world, we don’t need a Matt Zeller or a change.org for the US Embassy in Kabul or Baghdad to issue these visas.  But the fact that Janis received a visa after a change.org petition and after a lot of press noise, tells us something folks already know — the system is not working as it should but one person can make a difference.   If Mr. Zeller can  replicate this campaign with Ehsan’s case, we suspect that in short order, the State Department will be swamped with similar campaigns.

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