Yo! The Thing. Still Going on in China?

We understand that there are still “a lot of curtailments” continuing out of China even now because “The Thing” is still going on according to a note in our mailbox.

In January 2018, the SFRC’s had a Subcommittee Hearing Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight. In September 2018, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting that the Trump administration provide an unclassified version of the State Department’s recent Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on the incidents affecting the health of U.S. personnel serving in Cuba. We have not been able to locate any congressional oversight hearings on the incident in China.  We don’t know if there is an ARB China. If an ARB was convened on the health attacks in China, there does not appear to be any public notification. 

In late October, an NBC News investigation indicates that US diplomats are concerned that the State Department is down-playing a pattern of what’s been called “health attacks” on diplomatic staff in Cuba and China. (see Is @StateDept Working to Minimize the Health Attacks in China? #Cuba #MissingARBs). If curtailments are still going on, that indicates that USG employees and family members in one of our largest overseas missions remain in harm’s way, so who’s talking about it?  Somebody please ask your friendly senior administration official what are they doing about it. Three years ago, we would have had back to back congressional hearings not just on the Havana Syndrome, but also on the China Syndrome, and on the State Department’s response to these attacks. Can we please have some oversight hearings in January, pretty please?   

Via Giphy

MORE:

This one about Canadian diplomats and their families. G&M reports that  nine Canadian adults and four children have been diagnosed with the brain injuries. “The Canadians who were affected in 2017 are all in Canada and still employed by Global Affairs, although several are unable to work because of their symptoms.”

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State/OIG: Sustained Failure of Leadership at the National Passport Center

The National Passport Center is located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. NPC opened in 1992 and this past November, it processed its 100 millionth passport application. Below excerpted from State/OIG’s report,  Targeted Review of Leadership and Management at the National Passport Center:

Backgrounder: NPC, the largest of 29 passport-processing agencies and twice the size of the next largest, issued 7.4 million passports in FY 2017, or 38 percent of all passports issued by the U.S. Government from October 2016 to September 2017. Located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the center was created in 1992, and it grew from 60 employees at its founding to approximately 900 following a 2007 surge in passport demand.

At the time of the inspection, NPC’s staff consisted of a GS-15 Director, 6 GS-14 Assistant Directors, 16 GS-13 Adjudication Managers, and 57 GS-12 Supervisory Passport Specialists who supervised approximately 350 Passport Specialists. Additional staff included Customer Service and Fraud
Prevention employees, Passport Operations Officers, and over 400 contractors who were responsible for passport production and other support services. NPC operates two flexible shifts, which together cover 22 hours per day Monday through Friday. In addition, depending on workload, NPC scheduled overtime shifts on Saturday and Sunday.

Work Environment and CA/PPT Leadership: Senior leaders in CA’s Office of Passport Services (CA/PPT) were aware of concerns regarding NPC’s work environment since at least 2013, when several NPC employees made allegations against NPC leadership. The employees alleged harassment, “bullying,” a lack of trust in leadership, favoritism, abusive behavior to employees, improper hiring procedures, and an overall lack of transparency in the operations of the organization. In response to the allegations, CA/PPT instructed the Director of the Northeast Regional Office, who oversees NPC and other passport agencies, to conduct an internal review of NPC, which he did in January and February 2014. […] To address the internal review’s findings, CA/PPT ordered extensive executive coaching and training for NPC’s Director and senior leaders. The training lasted approximately 2 years and ended in 2016.

How not to solve the problem: OIG also determined that CA/PPT and NPC senior leaders were disengaged and, based on OIG interviews, generally aware of concerns regarding harassment, abuse, and misconduct. During OIG’s review, CA/PPT senior leaders told OIG that they blamed some of the issues at NPC on the fact that employees have known each other for a long time, dismissing the allegations as grudges held from high school and referring to employees as “crusty New Englanders.” CA/PPT’s senior leaders moreover acknowledged inappropriate behavior at NPC, but hoped that “being really busy would solve the problem.”

Being really busy is their hopeful solution? Good lord, who are these people? Are they available to work their magic wand as WH chiefs of staff?

It works! OIG Hotline Complaints: Between February and May 2018, OIG received a series of hotline complaints alleging misconduct, harassment, retaliation, and unfair hiring practices at NPC. […] Hundreds of NPC employees reported to OIG that retaliation, harassment, and “bullying” pervaded the work environment at NPC. OIG found that the reported behavior was widespread and was either condoned or perpetrated by nearly all levels of NPC leadership. Seventeen percent (91) of NPC employees who responded to OIG’s survey reported that they had experienced or observed discrimination and harassment. Of the 156 NPC employees OIG interviewed, 54 (35 percent) stated that they had experienced or observed retaliation, 80 (51 percent) stated that they had experienced or observed harassment, and 61 (39 percent) stated that they had experienced or observed discrimination.

Employees reported to OIG multiple instances of perceived or possible retaliation by Assistant Directors, Adjudication Managers, and other Supervisory Passport Specialists in denying awards, promotions, and special assignments.

Multiple employees reported incidents of sexual and gender-based harassment to OIG, which in some cases, had been ongoing, widely known, and accepted as part of the center’s culture.

Holy Guacamole Alert! NPC’s already problematic workplace environment was exacerbated by the fact that communication was ineffective at all levels within NPC. […] One example of poor communication was the lack of a formal and effective process for explaining and interpreting new guidance with Passport Specialists. When CA/PPT Office of Adjudication (CA/PPT/A) issued new or updated adjudication-specific guidance, its implementation instructions to passport agencies stated that Adjudication Managers must meet with Passport Specialists to discuss the guidance, answer questions, and ensure everyone understands how to implement the new guidance.10 However, NPC’s Adjudication Managers consistently and affirmatively refused to meet with Passport Specialists. 

You read that part above and you think that’s just bonkers. If they’re not meeting regularly to discuss new passport guidance, how would they know if the guidance they have is already outdated?

Security Procedures: In the course of examining the leadership and communication issues described previously, OIG also learned that NPC did not comply with all required Department security procedures. Specifically […] NPC did not follow facility access control measures that govern employee entry and exit, creating an opportunity for individuals without approved access to enter the building.

Admonishment from CA/PPT senior leader and NPC managers: OIG also notes that, after its site visit, a CA/PPT senior leader visited NPC. According to an information memo CA prepared for the Deputy Secretary following the visit, the CA/PPT senior leader communicated  to NPC employees that the Department does not tolerate retaliation. However, OIG subsequently received complaints that CA/PPT senior leaders and NPC managers admonished staff for complaining to and speaking with OIG.

We should note that the OIG report does not include the names of the senior leaders at CA/PPT or the managers at NPC but they’re on LinkedIn, is that right? Please don’t make them lead the Consular Leadership Day festivities next year, hookay?

OBO’s Fire Protection Judgments and @StateDept’s Black Hole of Bureaucratic Shrugger-Swagger

 

We blogged previously about the State/OIG Management Assistance Report sounding the alarm over the fire alarm system at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (see  U.S. Embassy Kabul: Fire Alarm System Needs Prompt Attention or #MustHaveNoFireBeforeMarch2019

We received a reaction about the OIG report basically saying “hey, I agree with all the violations listed by the OIG”. Our correspondent also thought the “funniest thing” included in the report is that OBO challenged the OIG qualifications. There appears to be serious concerns that sound fire protection engineering judgements are being overridden “on a regular basis.” There are also some questions/allegations about the qualifications of OBO folks making decisions concerning fire protection engineering — that if true, could potentially have serious consequences.

OPM says  that all Professional Engineering positions require a basic degree in engineering or a combination of education and experience — college-level education, training, and/or technical experience that furnished (1) a thorough knowledge of the physical and mathematical sciences underlying engineering, and (2) a good understanding, both theoretical and practical, of the engineering sciences and techniques and their applications to one of the branches of engineering. Also that the adequacy of such background must be demonstrated by one of the following: 1) Professional registration or licensure — Current registration as an Engineer Intern (EI), Engineer in Training (EIT)1, or licensure as a Professional Engineer (PE) by any State, the District of Columbia, Guam, or Puerto Rico. 2) Written Test — Evidence of having successfully passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE)2 examination or any other written test required for professional registration by an engineering licensure board in the various States, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Read more here.

In any case, you know that State/PA refused to respond to us during Tillerson’s watch but with Pompeo’s new guards in, we thought we should try asking questions again from its media professionals, coz, why not, hey?

We did receive a PA response months ago that says “we’ll look into it but may not have anything over the weekend”.  Lordy, short weekends and long weekends have come and gone and we have not heard anything back via email, fax, sign language, or telephatic signal.  Our follow-up email appeared to have also ended up in a black hole of bureaucratic shrugger-swagger.

In any case, we’ve addressed the same questions to State/OIG, and those folks reliably read and respond to email inquiries, and we received the following:

Ensuring the safety and security of Department personnel is paramount for the OIG. We give careful consideration to allegations relating to safety and security issues, including the one involving the Office of Fire Protection. Additionally, if anyone becomes aware of something that jeopardizes the safety and security of Department employees, they should report it immediately to the OIG hotline at OIG.state.gov/HOTLINE or at 1-800-409-9926.

About that report, here are a couple of examples that we understand, requires some folks to wear brown paper bags over their heads when reading:

OBO’s Technical Comment 10 | OBO disagreed with OIG’s statement: “According to PAE, a secondary loop was installed. However, rather than being routed separately, the existing fiber optic cables run in a parallel path. Because the fiber optic cables run in the same direction (as opposed to opposite directions representing a redundant circuit), damage to one part of the network can render sections of the network inoperable.” OBO stated that “it is perfectly acceptable for cables to run in the same direction. They cannot run in the same conduit. Additionally, the secondary loop is, in fact, a redundant circuit since there are two paths of travel one from the original loop and one from the secondary loop.”

OIG’s Reply | OIG agrees that cables can run in the same direction but cannot run in the same conduit. OIG found, however, that a number of the runs currently installed at Embassy Kabul did, in fact, have fiber optic cables bundled together in the same conduit. The photo below shows the current configuration at Embassy Kabul in which fiber optic cables are bundled together in the same conduit. This is contrary to NFPA standards for a redundant path. OIG made no changes to the report on the basis of this comment.

TA-DAA! Somebody stop these wild cables from running in the same conduit!

 

OBO’s Technical Comment 13 | OBO disagreed with OIG’s conclusion that “the improper installation of key components of Embassy Kabul’s fire alarm system needs immediate attention because of the potential safety risk to personnel and property.” OBO stated that it disagreed with OIG’s underlying assumptions and that OIG’s scope contained flaws.

OIG’s Reply | As set forth in this report, OBO is not in compliance with NFPA 72 regarding the requirement for a redundant path. In addition, a number of the runs currently installed at Embassy Kabul have fiber optic cables bundled together in the same conduit, which similarly fails to comply with NFPA 72. The NFPA codes and standards are designed to minimize the risk and effects of fire by establishing criteria for building, processing, design, service, and installation around the world. Failure to adhere to these requirements thus presents potential risk to embassy personnel and property. Therefore, the improper installation of key components of Embassy Kabul’s fire alarm system requires immediate attention. OIG made no changes to the report on the basis of this comment.

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Whistleblower Protection Memo – How Useless Are You, Really?

Back in July, we blogged that State/OIG cited a State Department’s revocation of an employee’s security clearance in retaliation for whistleblowing in its Semi-Annual Report to Congress for October 2017-March 2018. State/OIG recommended that the whistleblower’s security clearance be reinstated (see State/OIG Finds @StateDept Revoked Security Clearance in Retaliation For Whistleblowing).  Retaliatory revocation is not an unheard of practice but we believed this is the first time it’s been reported publicly to the Congress.

Also in July, there was a joint OIG-State memo noting that “Whistleblowers perform a critically important service to the Department of State and to the public when they disclose fraud, waste, and abuse. The Department is committed to protecting all personnel against reprisal for whistleblowing.  This summer OIG told us that Congress enacted a new provision in 2017 that requires an agency to suspend for at least 3 days a supervisor found to have engaged in a prohibited personnel practice, such as whistleblower retaliation, and to propose removal of a supervisor for the second prohibited personnel practice. (see @StateDept’s Retaliatory Security Clearance Revocation Now Punishable By [INSERT Three Guesses].

In September, we note the time lapse since the official report was made to the Congress and wondered what action the State Department took in this case.  If the State Department believes, as the memo states that “Whistleblowers perform a critically important service to the Department of State and to the public” we really wanted to know what the State Department has done to the official/officials responsible for this retaliatory security clearance revocation.

We also want to see how solid is that commitment in protecting personnel against reprisal — not in words, but action.  So we’ve asked the State Department the following questions:

1) Has the security clearance been reinstated for the affected employee, and if so, when?

2) Has the senior official who engaged in this prohibited personnel practice been suspended per congressional mandate, and if so, when and for how long? and

3) Has the State Department proposed a removal of any supervisor/s for engaging in this prohibited personnel practice now or in the past?

As you can imagine, our friends over there are busy swaggering and to-date have not found the time to write back.

Folks, it’s been eight months since that annual report went to the U.S. Congress. If you’re not going to penalize the official or officials who revoked an employee’s security clearance out of retaliation, you were just wasting the letters of the alphabet and toner in that darn paper writing out a whistleblower protection memo.

And the Congress should be rightly pissed.

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USG-Funded Radio Televisión Martí Targets American Philanthropist George Soros

 

On October 26, Mother Jones reported that Radio Televisión Martí went after George Soros in a two-part piece that aired in May 2018. The hit piece called the philanthropist a “multimillionaire Jew” and “the architect of the financial collapse of 2008.” The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) oversees Radio and Television Martí at its headquarters in Miami.  The U.S. Agency for Global Media (formerly BBG), a U.S. taxpayer-funded entity oversees OCB.  The videos have been taken down but are still available on YouTube here and here.  The State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs serves as the Secretary of State’s representative on the Board.  Heather Nauert became Acting Under Secretary on March 13, 2018 until October 10. 2018. As of this writing, we have not seen anything out of the State Department regarding these segments targeting a private American citizen.

On October 29, CEO John Lansing who joined BBG in 2015 released a statement that says in part the following:

“It was brought to my attention this weekend that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which is overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), earlier this year aired a video segment about George Soros that is inconsistent with our professional standards and ethics. USAGM networks’ content is required to adhere to the highest standards of professional journalism.

Those deemed responsible for this production will be immediately placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into their apparent misconduct. Disciplinary action appropriate under federal law may then be proposed, including the potential removal of those responsible, depending on the outcome of that investigation.

Via MJ:

Tomás P. Regalado, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, told Mother Jones in an email, “Judicial Watch is a good source, but having said that, it should not have been the only source. The two part series was not precise and did not have on the record sources to balance the story.” Regalado noted that he became OCB director on June 6, several weeks after the segment aired, and three days later he appointed a new news director and assignment editor.

“To be fair and to show that we in the new administration are committed to journalistic integrity, the stories have been pulled out of the digital page, not because we want to hide anything, but because we want to be transparent if we say that the story did not have the required balance, then it should not be on the air,” he said.

Holy guacamole! Senator Flake tweeted “TV Marti director says its program on George Soros lacked “balance.” Sorry, there is no balance that makes anti-Semitism right. BBG must investigate how such programming was produced and and why it aired.”

OCB has an annual budget of $28.1 million, it has 117 employees, and an audience estimated at 1 million.

AND NOW THIS —

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FSJ: MED’s Focus on Clearances and Restricting Access to SNEA #NotSupportForFamilies

We’ve blogged previously about the problems encountered by Foreign Service families with the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services (see StateDept’s MED Services Drive Employees with Special Needs #FSKids Nuts; Also @StateDept’s Blackhole of Pain Inside the Bureau of Medical Services (MED). The latest issue of the Foreign Service Journal features a piece by James Brush who previously worked as a child psychologist at the State Department.

Via FSJ: James Brush, Ph.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. He worked at the State Department as a child psychologist with the Child and Family Program division of MED Mental Health from January 2013 through March 2016. Prior to his work at State, he had a private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, for 26 years. A past president of the Ohio Psychological Association, he continues to be involved as a committee chair. 

Below is an excerpt from The Demise of MED’s Child and Family Program (FSJ)

The Child and Family Program within the Bureau of Medical Services’ Mental Health program was constituted in 2013, when the full team was finally in place after years of planning. I was brought onto the team as one of two child psychologists. By March, we had on board a child psychiatrist director, two child psychologists and three clinical social workers who had experience in treating and managing the needs of children and adolescents.

I was on the ground floor of this program, and our mission was both exciting and challenging. This was the first extensive effort within the State Department to support the specific mental health and developmental needs of children, adolescents and their families living abroad.
[…]
By 2015, three of the psychiatrists who were opposed to the CFP functioning as a comprehensive support program ended up having leadership roles in MED. Dr. Stephen Young took over as the director of mental health. Dr. Kathy Gallardo took over as deputy director of mental health, and Dr. Aleen Grabow was brought in as a child psychiatric consultant. Together, they worked toward limiting the scope of the CFP, limiting the SNEA program and reducing the opportunities for families with disabled children through more restrictive use of child mental health clearances.

Within a year of their tenure in leadership, we lost our child psychiatrist director, the two child psychologists and one clinical social worker. I and the other providers left because Drs. Young and Gallardo changed the mission and scope of the CFP. It became an unpleasant place in which to work, with the emphasis being on clearances and restricting access to SNEA. Support for families was no longer the focus. Rather, support services were being cut and the clearance process was being used to restrict the opportunities of those with disabled children.

The program is now a skeleton of what it was previously, with only one social worker, one child psychologist and one retired Foreign Service psychiatrist. Telemedicine is forbidden. The program now basically performs an administrative function, processing clearances and SNEA requests.

Read the entire piece here.

We understand that State/OIG is aware of some allegations related to the special needs education allowance (SNEA) and is doing “exploratory work”. Well, Dr. Brush’s account should be instructive.  This is not one of the employees battling the bureaucracy on behalf of their children, this is one of the people who used to work at MED.

While we might be tempted to think that the troubling response could be some form of retaliation for blowing this issue up in the media, it is hard to imagine that MED’s policy and focus on restricting access to SNEA and the medical clearance do not have the full blessings of the State Department leadership all the way to the 7th Floor. After all, if State really wanted to resolve these cases, it would have worked with these FS families to accommodate their needs, avoid forcing people into taking loans to pay/repay for special ed needs expenses, and it would have afforded families an appeals process (IT. DOESN’T).

And they certainly would not/not have threatened people who pursue this issue, right? RIGHT?

Perhaps, this is what they mean when they talk about the new Department of Swagger? Take it or leave?

(Thought bubble: How long before the proponents of this policy get promotions, Superior Honor Awards or Presidential Rank Awards?)

While the State Department has lifted the hiring freeze, and the A-100 classes are no longer on a hit and miss schedule, it is not clear to us what the new secretary of state’s position on the previously planned 8% shrinkage of the agency workforce. If that was a WH imperative as opposed to Tillerson’s, it would be hard to imagine Secretary Pompeo going against it.

The CRS report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs: FY2019 Budget and Appropriations dated April 18, 2018 and updated on August 9, 2018 notes the following:

The Department of State released guidance in May 2018 lifting the hiring freeze and allowing the department to increase staffing to December 31, 2017, levels. Subsequent press reports indicate that the department intends to hire 454 new employees beyond end of year 2017 levels but also suggest that hiring must be circumscribed by previous commitments former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made to reduce its workforce by 8%.

So this brings us to the “take it or leave” scenario for FS employees with special needs children. Since these kids are given limited medical clearances with no appeals (which precludes most if not all overseas assignments), Foreign Service families will be forced to serve either in domestic assignments in order to stay together; serve separately with employees going overseas, while their families stay in the United States, or employees may opt to pay everything out of pocket and not ask for SNEA to avoid getting snared in MED’s clutches.

Begs the questions: 1) How many career employees would stay on when their employer talk the talk about supporting FS families but know it’s just a gum chewing exercise? And 2)  Is this what a slow walk to 8% looks like??

By the way, if there’s an alternate reasonable explanation for all this that does not require our relocation to the parallel universe, Earth, Too, send us an email, we’d love a good chat.

 

Related items:

 

 

State/ECA Program Manager Gets 13 Months in Prison For KickBacks

Back in July in a catch-up post, we  blogged about  State/ECA employee Kelli R. Davis, 48, of Bowie, Maryland, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit theft of public funds and engage in honest services wire fraud before U.S. Senior District Judge T.S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia.  On September 7, she was sentenced to 13 months in prison for accepting kickbacks and stealing federal funds intended for a foreign exchange program maintained by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Below is the announcement from USDOJ:

State Department Official Sentenced to Prison for Engaging in Honest Services Wire Fraud and Theft of Federal Funds

Via USDOJ:

A program manager for the U.S. Department of State was sentenced to 13 months in prison today for accepting kickbacks and stealing federal funds intended for a foreign exchange program maintained by the U.S. Department of State.  Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger of the Eastern District of Virginia, Inspector General Steve A. Linick of the U.S. Department of State and Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno of the FBI Washington Field Office’s Criminal Division made the announcement.

Kelli R. Davis, 49, of Bowie, Maryland, was sentenced by Senior U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, III of the Eastern District of Virginia.  On May 24, Davis pleaded guilty to a one-count information charging her with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and theft of public money.

According to admissions made in connection with her plea, Davis was a Program Specialist for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  She also served as the Program Manager and Grants Officer Representative for the Sports Visitors Program, which sponsored foreign exchanges for emerging youth athletes and coaches from various countries.  The exchange program was managed by George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, through a federal grant and cooperative agreement with the State Department.

Davis admitted that between February 2011 and March 2016, she conspired with others to steal portions of the federal money allocated to the Sports Visitor Program by, among other things, falsifying vendor-related invoices and making fraudulent checks payable to a government contractor, Denon Hopkins, who supplied transportation services for the program.  In total, Davis and Hopkins stole approximately $17,335 from the State Department.  They have both admitted that Hopkins used portions of the funds to pay kickbacks to Davis to retain his transportation contract.  In addition, Davis stole an additional $17,777 from the program over a multi-year period.

The Department of State’s Office of Inspector General and the FBI’s Washington Field Office investigated the case.  Trial Attorney Edward P. Sullivan of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly R. Pedersen of the Eastern District of Virginia are prosecuting the case.

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Former Senior Diplomat Uzra Zeya Blasts @StateDept’s Diversity Slide, and More

Career diplomat Uzra Zeya previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Paris. Previous to that, she was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).  She has over two decades of policy experience in the Department, where she has focused on the Near East and South Asia regions and multilateral affairs. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1990, Ms. Zeya’s overseas assignments have included Paris, Muscat, Damascus, Cairo, and Kingston. Ms. Zeya also served as Chief of Staff to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, where she supported a range of policy initiatives, ranging from the U.S. response to transitions in the Middle East to deepening engagement with emerging global powers. Other assignments include serving as Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, Deputy Executive Secretary to Secretaries Rice and Clinton, Director of the Executive Secretariat Staff, and as UNGA coordinator for the International Organizations bureau.  Below is an except from the piece she wrote for Politico.

Via Politico: Trump Is Making American Diplomacy White Again

I worked at the State Department for 27 years and was proud to watch it become more diverse. Until President Trump

In 2017, as the media ran out of synonyms for “implosion” in describing Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state, a quieter trend unfolded in parallel: the exclusion of minorities from top leadership positions in the State Department and embassies abroad.

This shift quickly became apparent in the department’s upper ranks. In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their places. In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.
[…]
Although the department did not dispute the decline in minority and female ambassador nominees, an official said the percentage of African Americans, Hispanics and women hired as Foreign Service officers had increased from 2016 to 2017. That’s an encouraging sign at the entry level, but it does not address reduced minority representation at the senior level. With dozens of ambassadorial and other senior positions vacant, there is still time for Secretary Pompeo to reverse the slide in diversity among the department’s leadership; it’s worth noting that the Trump administration is not even two years in, while Obama and Bush each had eight years to shape the department’s top ranks. But up to now, Foggy Bottom’s upper echelons are looking whiter, more male and less like America.
[…]
In my own case, I hit the buzz saw that Team Trump wielded against career professionals after leading the U.S. Embassy in Paris through three major terrorist attacks over three years and after planning President Trump’s Bastille Day visit. Upon returning to Washington, as accolades for the president’s visit poured in, I was blocked from a series of senior-level jobs, with no explanation. In two separate incidents, however, colleagues told me that a senior State official opposed candidates for leadership positions—myself and an African-American female officer—on the basis that we would not pass the “Breitbart test.” One year into an administration that repudiated the very notion of America I had defended abroad for 27 years, I knew I could no longer be a part of it, and I left government earlier this year.
[…]
[I]t is difficult to leverage diversity with a Senior Foreign Service that remains 88.8 percent white and more than two-thirds male. If the State Department is not going to acknowledge this problem, Congress should insist on a serious commitment to diversity in American diplomacy from Secretary Pompeo—by demanding answers for the slide in minority and female senior representation at State, accountability if any officials have violated equal opportunity laws, prohibitions on political retaliation and protections for employees who report wrongdoing.

 

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US Embassy Costa Rica Sub-Contractor Gets 30 Months For Stealing USG Funds #VisaFees

This past July, we blogged about US Embassy Costa Rica’s sub-contractor who leaded guilty to the theft of visa fees (see What did we miss?).  On September 7, USDOJ announced that the contractor, Mauricio Andulo Hidalgo, age 43, of Costa Rica was sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft of government funds.

Via USDOJ:

Charleston, South Carolina —- United States Attorney Sherri A. Lydon announced today that Mauricio Andulo Hidalgo, age 43, of Costa Rica, was sentenced to a term of 30 months in prison by the United States District Court in Charleston for stealing from the United States Government.

Hidalgo previously pled guilty to Theft of Government Funds, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641.  United States District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy, of Charleston, imposed the sentence, which also includes three years of supervised release and mandatory restitution.

Evidence presented at a change of plea hearing established that Hidalgo used his position as President of SafetyPay-Central America to steal over $293,832 of government funds that were supposed to be transferred to a bank account maintained by the Department of State’s Global Financial Services Center in Charleston.  SafetyPay-Central America had been hired as a subcontractor to handle the processing of visa application fees for the United States Embassy in Costa Rica.  As part of the scheme, Hidalgo diverted the funds from a SafetyPay bank account in Costa Rica to another Costa Rican account under his sole control.

The case was investigated by special agent Katherine Kovacek of the Department of State/Office of Inspector General, which is led by Inspector General Steve A. Linick.  Assistant United States Attorneys Marshall “Matt” Austin and Nathan Williams both of the Charleston Office prosecuted the case.

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@StateDept’s Retaliatory Security Clearance Revocation Now Punishable By [INSERT Three Guesses]

 

In July, we blogged about a short item in the latest State/OIG Semi-Annual Report to Congress that indicates it substantiated an allegation of a security clearance revocation in retaliation for an employee’s whistleblowing activity under PPD-19. State/OIG recommended that the whistleblower’s security clearance be reinstated. See State/OIG Finds @StateDept Revoked Security Clearance in Retaliation For Whistleblowing

On July 20, 2018, an unclassified memo jointly signed by Deputy Secretary John Sullivan and State/OIG Steve Linick was released by the Deputy Secretary’s office (with a Whistleblower Info flyer). The memo says in part:

Whistleblowers perform a critically important service to the Department of State and to the public when they disclose fraud, waste, and abuse. The Department is committed to protecting all personnel against reprisal for whistleblowing.

The attached memorandum describes how to make a whistleblowing disclosure and the legal protections that exist for whistleblowers, including Foreign and Civil Service employees and employees of Department contractors and grantees. The memorandum also describes how to file a complaint if you believe you have been subject to improper retaliation.

The memo also identifies the Whistleblower Ombudsman for the State Department as  Jeff McDermott:

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 requires Inspectors General to designate a Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman. Jeff McDermott has been designated as the Whistleblower Ombudsman for the Department. He is available to discuss the protections against retaliation and how to make a protected disclosure, but he cannot act as your legal representative or advocate. You may contact him atWPEAOmbuds@stateoig.gov.

The memo concludes with a reminder that State Department employees “have a right” to communicate directly with the OIG, and provides contact details:

Remember that Department employees always have a right to communicate directly with OIG. The OIG hotline number is 800-409-9926, and the hotline website is https://oig.state.gov/hotline. OIG’s main website is https://oig.state.gov/.

We suspect that this memo may have been prompted by the IG report to the Congress that an employee had his/her security clearance revoked in retaliation for whistleblowing.

So we wrote to the Whistleblower Ombudsman Jeff McDermott with our congratulations, and, of course to ask a couple of simple questions:

Citing the Sullivan-Linick memo, we asked how is this going to discourage retaliation on whistleblowers when we don’t know what consequences officials face when they are the perpetrators of such retaliation?

Given the latest example of an employee whose security clearance was revoked in retaliation for whistleblowing, we asked if anyone at the State Department has disciplined for doing so?

Since we did not get a response from the Whistleblower Ombudsman, we asked State/OIG for comment last month and was told the following:

Please note that there are different disclosure and review processes for contractor and employee whistleblower retaliation allegations. There is also a different review process for allegations of whistleblower retaliation in the form of actions that have affected an employee’s security clearance. OIG primarily reviews contractor whistleblower and security clearance retaliation allegations, while the Office of Special Counsel generally reviews employee retaliation allegations.

Congress enacted a new provision last year that requires an agency to suspend for at least 3 days a supervisor found to have engaged in a prohibited personnel practice, such as whistleblower retaliation, and to propose removal of a supervisor for the second prohibited personnel practice. OIG believes that these new provisions will demonstrate that there are serious consequences for whistleblower retaliation.

The case you are referring to is a retaliatory security clearance revocation case, and the decision about what action to take has not yet been determined by the Department.

So it’s now September. If the State Department believes, as the memo states that “Whistleblowers perform a critically important service to the Department of State and to the public” we really would like to know what the State Department has done to the official/officials responsible for this retaliatory security clearance revocation.

 

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