US Embassy Kabul: As Many as 20 People Infected With COVID-19 (Via AP)

 

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Dear @StateDept, What Are You Going to Do About Metin Topuz’s Imprisonment Besides Being “Deeply Troubled?”

 

The United States can do a lot more than simply express being “deeply troubled” or its “deep disappointment.” The question is will it do more? How much is it willing to do when it comes to Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen employee who worked at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul prior to his arrest?
The State Department has 50,059 locally employed staff at 275 posts in 195 countries.
In August 2018, the Treasury Department targeted Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu with financial sanctions over the country’s refusal to release Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor who had been imprisoned by the Turkish government on charges of terrorism and espionage. In October 2018, Brunson was convicted, by Turkish authorities, on the charge of aiding terrorism, but was released from Turkish custody and returned to the United States.

 

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Snapshot: @StateDept COVID-19 Cases as of April 3, 2020

The State Department updated its COVID-19 cases on Friday, April 3. 2020. From March 31 to April 3, the number of employees and family members overseas who were self-isolating went from 2,288 to 3,528, an increase of 1,240. The number of positive cases decreased from 149 to 108; while those who recovered went from 42 on March 31 to 79 on April 3, a difference of 37 new individuals recovered.
The April 3 update now includes the number of deaths. As of April 3, there were three deaths overseas from COVID-19, all three are noted as Locally Employed (LE) staffers. We learned previously that one LE staffer died in Jakarta, and another in Kinshasa. We do not know as yet, the location of the third casualty. In the April 3 briefing, Dr. Walters declined to identify the country where the third death occurred. Why? We can’t say. Obviously, the next of kin already know about the death. Co-workers at post already know about the death. We’re not sure why they’re refusing the even identify post; reporters are not asking for names. If Walters is going to cite the Privacy Act, deceased individuals and country names do not have Privacy Act rights. If there’s a real rationale for this, we’d like to know.
The April 3 update still do not include information on the number of medical evacuations (MEDEVAC), USG patients or places of origin. We can confirm at least one MEDEVAC from Burkina Faso, and that USG patient is on the road to recovery.
For domestic cases, the number of self-isolating employees went from 44 to 50 in three days, with positive cases going from 33 to 46 cases.  The report indicates that two domestic employees have recovered as of April 3, 2020.
See excerpts from April 3 briefing below.

 

As of April 3, 2020

As of March 31, 2020

 

Dr. Walters on April 3 Briefing:

Now moving on to the latest COVID-19 statistics for the Department of State, as of today, April 3rd, there are 108 confirmed cases overseas. There are 46 confirmed cases domestically, occurring in nine different cities. So far, there are no reported deaths domestically, but unfortunately there are now a total of three deaths overseas amongst our workforce.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I just had a question about the number of State Department deaths and a testing question. The first is: Can you give us any more information about the employee, the third person who had died or what country that was in and any other information you can give us?

And second, does State currently have a standard policy on testing? Do – for example, people who think they may be – may have the virus but are not showing symptoms, are they able to get tested? What is the standard guidance on department employees getting tested? Thanks.

MR WALTERS: So as to the first question, I can tell you that it was a locally-employed staff member overseas. I don’t – can’t really go into any further detail because it becomes easier and easier to identify individual people when you do that, so I’m afraid I can’t.

With regard to testing, domestically we all exist within a broad public health architecture. From an occupational health perspective, we have a responsibility to protect the workforce, but we live within and work within the city of Washington, D.C., or in Virginia or Maryland, and ultimately testing and contact tracing is a local and state responsibility and authority. And so we cooperate very closely with the state and local and county public health teams to make sure that we keep the workforce safe and make sure testing is used appropriately.

QUESTION: Hi, there. Thanks. Sorry, I was – I missed part of the answer to Nick’s question because of Elmo, but – (laughter) – did you, Doc Walters, say that the third death was a locally employed staffer? And is it correct that there are still no American staffers overseas who have been —who have succumbed?

And then secondly, the – how many of the more than 400 flights that Ian is talking about were commercial flights that – for which the U.S. Government did not have to pay anything? Thank you.

MR WALTERS: Thanks, Matt. I can answer the first part and then I’ll hand over to Ian and DAS Yon for the last part.

Yeah, so locally employed staff member overseas – we are not aware of any chief of mission personnel overseas who have succumbed to the illness.

Folks, we hate to do this but this is a real pet peeve for us because. Very basic.  “We are not aware of any chief of mission personnel overseas who have succumbed to the illness?” The three Locally Employed (LE) staff members who died of COVID-19 are not chief of mission personnel? Good grief!
2 FAH-2 H-112.1 talks about Chief of Mission authority to direct, supervise, and coordinate all U.S. Government executive branch employees in the COM’s country or area of responsibility.  This includes U.S. Direct Hire (USDH) employees and Personal Service Contractors (PSCs), whether assigned permanently or on temporary duty or an official visit, and; all Locally Employed (LE) Staff regardless of hiring mechanism (whether a direct hire or hired on a PSA, PSC or other mechanism by the Department of State or another U.S. government agency – see 3 FAM 7121).

If your routine visa services are still open during this pandemic, please tell us why (Updated)

Update: March 16, 4:58 PDT US Embassy Seoul, South Korea still doing routine visa services (see below)
From a March 14 message from State/M Brian Bulatao:
“We may never have experienced a situation exactly like this before, but the Department has plenty of experience dealing with emergencies. We know that we have to make good decisions for ourselves, for our families, for our colleagues, and are actively taking into account the needs and challenges of individual team members who may be at a higher risk if they contract COVID-19.
This means, if you are sick, please stay home. If a member of your household is sick, please stay home. If you think you may have been exposed, it is best to stay home – you do not have to take annual leave if you are set up to telework. Reducing contact with other people is our best defense against the spread of the virus.”
If your routine visa services are still open during this pandemic, we’d like to know why.
If your post is able to do social distancing for visa applicants while continuing full services, we’d like to know how.
At the US Embassy in Israel, a COVID19-positive individual visited the Embassy Branch Office Non-Immigrant Visa Section waiting room in Tel Aviv on March 5, the Embassy announced that it directed its affected staff to quarantine on March 12.
US Embassy Seoul: We’re told that despite being a Level 3 COVID-19 country with very active community spread for the past few weeks, has continued to do routine NIV visa services and is still doing routine NIV visa services. “Those from epicenter areas are able to walk in like anyone else. No temp checks or additional screenings! Guards are not allowed to turn visibly sick people away. Visa appointments are only down because people aren’t traveling as much. However you can still get an appointment easily for (F, M, J, B) This is also a visa waiver country.”  (Note: South Korea is a CDC Level 3 country, and a State Department Level 3: Reconsider Travel country as of this writing).

Updated: 5:30 PDT, March 18, 2020

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OPM Issues Guidance For Maximum Telework Flexibilities, Employees to Seek Direction From Agency Heads

 

On March 15, Acting OPM Director Russell  T. Bought issued an “Updated Guidance for the National Capital Region on Telework Flexibilities in Response to Coronavirus”:

In light of the evolving situation concerning the corona virus (“COVID-19”) and the National Capitol Region (NCR) experiencing community transmission, the Administration wants to ensure that department and agency leaders assertively safeguard the health and safety of their workforce while remaining open to serve the American people and conduct mission critical functions.

All Federal Executive Branch departments and agencies within the National Capital Region (NCR), consistent with OMB’s recent guidance (0MB M-20-13), are asked to offer maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, consistent with operational needs of the departments and agencies as determined by their heads. In addition, we encourage agencies to use all existing authorities to offer telework to additional employees, to the extent their work could be telework enabled. If employees are not eligible for telework, agency heads have the discretion to offer weather and safety leave, or the agency’s equivalent, including for employees who may not have been considered “at higher risk” under 0MB M-20- 13. Furthermore, agency heads should develop an operational plan that maximizes resources and functional areas to most safely and efficiently deliver these mission-critical functions and other Government services (including but not limited to staggered work schedules and other operational mitigation measures).

See OMB Guidance M-20-15 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/M20-15-Telework-Guidance-OMB.pdf)
Over a week ago, we understand that State/M Bulatao asked employees with mobile/remote access to test their remote access capabilities by participating in a worldwide remote log-in exercise.
This OPM guidance is only for the National Capital Region (NCR) but related to this, a concerned source recently told us that many State Department management platforms are “still not cloud based” or “not outsourced to regional centers”, and so for overseas employees, many locally employed staff must come into work.

 

Turkish Court Rules to Keep USG Employee Metin Topuz in Jail

 

Reuters reported on December 11, that a Turkish court ruled that U.S. Consulate General Istanbul employee, Metin Topuz remain jail “as his trial on espionage charges continues.”
Reuters previously reported in September that the lawyers for Metin Topuz applied in January to the European Court of Human Rights and that  the ECHR has accepted the application.
The AP previously reported that Topuz began working at the consulate in 1982 as a switchboard operator and was promoted to work as an assistant and translator to the DEA’s American personnel in Turkey a decade later.
Topuz was first arrested in October 2017 and has now been incarcerated for over two years. He is still an employee of the U.S. Government. We’ve been wondering what’s going to happen to him. There’ll be another hearing in March. And on and on it goes? Until when?
The State Department has previously updated its Foreign Affairs Manual in 2017 which provides the terms and conditions for authorizing compensation payments for current and former locally employed (LE) staff who are/were imprisoned by foreign governments as a result of their employment by the United States Government.
So for “amount of benefit” which applies to locally employed staff at State and All Agencies under Chief of Mission Authority (includes DEA):

a. State:  Compensation may not exceed an amount that the State Deputy Assistant Secretary for HR determines to approximate the salary and benefits to which an employee or former employee would have been entitled had the individual remained working during the period of such imprisonment.

b. All other agencies:  Compensation may not exceed an amount that the agency head determines to approximate the salary and benefits to which an employee or former employee would have been entitled had the individual remained working during the period of such imprisonment.

c.  Once the compensation amount has been set, each agency will deny or reduce this compensation by the amount of any other relief received by the employee or other claimant, such as through private legislation enacted by the Congress.

Under the section of “other benefits”:

Any period of imprisonment for which an employee is compensated under this section shall be considered for purposes of any other employee benefit to be a period of employment by the U.S. Government, with the following exceptions:

(1)  A period of imprisonment shall not be creditable toward Civil Service retirement unless the employee was covered by the U.S. Civil Service Retirement and Disability System during the period of U.S. Government employment last preceding the imprisonment, or the employee qualifies for annuity benefits by reason of other services; and/or

(2)  A period of imprisonment shall not be considered for purposes of workers’ compensation under Subchapter I of Chapter 81 of Title 5, U.S.C., unless the individual was employed by the U.S. Government at the time of imprisonment.

Just pause and think about this for a moment.  Local employees are typically are not paid in U.S. dollars but paid in local compensation plans/currencies. The United States Government will only pay the amount that the employee would have been entitled to if she were at work (and not in prison). Were Congress to allocate any compensation, USG will deny or reduce the amount claimed beyond the approximate salary.
So compensated for eight hours a day considered a workweek but none for weekends and 16 hours a day spent incarcerated and away from families or being slammed around by prison hosts? (A former Turkish official assigned to NATO arrested and accused as a “Feto” member spoke of tortures and show trials).
Wow!  This is breathtaking and full of heart, we wanna scream.
Also with very few exceptions, most locally employed staff are not covered by U.S. Civil Service retirement. But former USG local employees who gets in the cross-hairs of their governments and imprisoned due to their employment with the U.S. Government, their imprisonment “shall not be considered for purposes of workers’ compensation”. That only applies if they are employed by the USG at the time of imprisonment.
State/HR’s Overseas Employment should be proud of that ‘taking care of local employees’ award.

 

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The Giant Halkbank Octopus: New Episodes Coming Soon!

 

From our old post in 2017: Erdogan Rages Against the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara — What’s That About?

On March 19, 2016, Reza Zarrab an Iranian-Turkish citizen was arrested for allegedly engaging in hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of the Government of Iran and Iranian entities as part of a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions (Download u.s._v._zarab_et_al_indictment.pdf).

On March 28, 2017, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker was also arrested and charged for alleged conspiracies to violate the IEEPA and to commit bank fraud (Download US v. Mehmet Hakan Atilla complaint.pdf).

On September 6, 2017 DOJ announced the Superseding Indictment alleging that nine defendants (including a former Turkish Minister of the Economy (currently serving in Turkish Parliament), and a former General Manager Of Turkish Government-Owned Bank), “conspired to lie to U.S. Government officials about international financial transactions for the Government of Iran and used the U.S. financial system to launder bribes paid to conceal the scheme.”

In November 2017, NBC News also reported that Zarrab began cooperating with federal prosecutors in a money-laundering case.
According to avhal, the Turkish banker, Hakan Atilla served 32 months in prison in the United States for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, and was released on July 19 this year. On October 21, 2019, Turkey’s Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak (and Erdogan’s son-in-law) announced that the former Halkbank director has been appointed as the director general of Borsa Istanbul, Turkey’s main stock exchange.
On October 15, USDOJ announced that TÜRKİYE HALK BANKASI A.S., a/k/a “Halkbank,” was charged in a six-count Indictment with fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
On October 24, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon announced that he is launching an investigation into the Halkbank scandal.
Courthouse News Service Adam Klasfeld who has covered this case extensively notes in his October 22 report that “Turkey continued to hold three U.S. consulate workers in captivity with relative silence from the White House, and Halkbank kept an indictment at bay for more than two years, even after its ex-general manager Suleyman Aslan and executive Atilla had been charged with the multibillion-dollar conspiracy.”
Back in 2017, we thought this thriller which started out actually in 2013  (see the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins piece, A Mysterious Case Involving Turkey, Iran, and Rudy Giuliani) — with a cargo plane from Accra, Ghana, which was diverted to Istanbul’s main international airport, because of fog, and three thousand pounds of gold bars — was going to unravel under the glare of sunlight, but here we are in 2019.  So now we wait for the next episodes.

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Foreign Service Institute Rolls Out Pompeo’s Pursuit – A ‘One Team’ Four-Day Pilot Course For “Everyone”

Last week, Secretary Pompeo announced to agency employees that the Foreign Service Institute has launched its very first “One Team” pilot course.  Apparently, this new course is a four-day pilot  and “builds upon the ideas” expressed in the recently rolled out Professional Ethos. The purpose is  “to unite new employees around the “One Team, One Mission, One Future” vision and the unique history of the Department.”
The “One Team” course will reportedly supplement existing training to provide a common experience for new employees. According to Secretary Pompeo, “For the first time, Foreign Service, Civil Service, Limited Non-Career Appointments, and political appointees will all learn side-by-side. Everyone will grow as one team together”.

In developing the One Team course, we drew heavily from your thoughts on what new Department employees should know and understand about the Department, especially the importance of working together. As a result, the course will:

    • Explore the guiding principles of the Department, including our Professional Ethos;
    • Help employees connect their efforts and that of their colleagues to the Department’s mission;
    • Analyze how the Department’s work connects to the National Security Strategy, and the Department’s other strategic planning mechanisms;
    • Examine the meaning of the Oath of Office;
    • Investigate how the Department’s work directly benefits the American public; and
    • Inform our team about key accomplishments and personnel in the Department’s history that spans more than 230 years.
Supposedly, this course is “light on lectures” but full of “hands-on” engagement with the goal of “helping participants see how they each contribute” to the collective success as an organization.
There are reportedly 85 employees currently enrolled in the pilot course at FSI.  They are expected to provide feedback so the course can be “refined” for “several more trial runs this fall and in early 2020.”
Secretary Pompeo also told State Department employees that the goal is “to finalize the course and begin ramping it up next year to accommodate the roughly 1,600-1,800 new employees that the Department onboards every year.” He also said that “This critical investment will ensure that each one of our future colleagues is best prepared to join our efforts as champions of American diplomacy.”
We can’t tell right now how expensive is this project. Presumably, not as expensive as Rex Tillerson’s redesign project but one never know.  If you’re taking the course, we’re looking forward to hearing your assessment of the course, as well as assessment of the identified learning goals. Is this effective indoctrination, or a waste of dime and time? Are students in a bubble wrap or are they allowed to question the misalignment of stated values and actual practice we can see with our very stable faculties every day? Are trainers able to reconcile the gap between the stated professional ethos and reality? Is the State Department making this course mandatory for the leadership  at the Bureau of International Organizations, for starters or as refreshers?
There is also one glaring omission in the target audience for this course – the largest employee group in the State Department: not Foreign Service, not Civil Service, not Limited Non-Career Appointments, and not political appointees but it’s local employees, spanning over 275 posts, and totaling more than all other employee groups combined.  They do not appear to be included in this training “to unite new employees around the “One Team, One Mission, One Future” vision and the unique history of the Department.” These folks, almost all foreign nationals, often touted as the backbone of the State Department’s overseas presence, do not need to be champions of American diplomacy, do they?
Nothing shouts “One Team” louder than excluding local employees from this supposedly common, and unifying experience for new employees. This “One Team” training is in person right now, we can’t imagine State expending dollars to bring in LE employees from overseas to Washington, D.C. Although, one can make the case that if this is as important as they say it is, then doesn’t it make sense that all employees in the organization are trained and imbued with its specific point of view, and guiding principles? Are they considering an online course? web-based courses?
In any case, when the secretary says that this will help “everyone to grow as one team together”, everyone doesn’t really mean everyone, just all direct-hire American employees. But don’t fret, the $10,000 “One Team” Award is available for uh … Everyone. Even contractors. Oops, uh wait, what’s that?

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Snapshot: Comparative Look at @StateDept Staffing 2008 – 2018

Via state.gov:

(click image above for larger view)

 

Pompeo Announces Departure of All Remaining U.S. Embassy Caracas Diplomats From Venezuela

 

On March 14, Secretary Pompeo announced the “temporary” departure of all remaining US Embassy Caracas diplomats from Venezuela. He also said that “We look forward to resuming our presence once the transition to democracy begins. ”

Two days ago, the State Department reissued its Level 4 Do Not Travel Advisory after the March 11, 2019 announcement of temporary suspension of operations of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and withdrawal of diplomatic personnel in Venezuela. The advisory cautions American travelers to  “not travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention.”

Keep the local staffers in your thoughts, personnel withdrawal does not include the local employees. See CDA James Story video here with a message to the people of Venezuela.

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