U.S. Embassy Gabon: State/OIG’s Ode to All Things Dreadful in a Small Post

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For small posts in the Foreign Service, the Eagles’ ‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’ line is often appropriate.  And in the case of the U.S. Embassy Libreville in Gabon, it sounds pretty much like the later. With few exceptions, it’s hard to find things that are working well at the embassy in Gabon based on State/OIG’s inspection. The report lists career diplomat Joel Danies as U.S. Ambassador who arrived at post in March 2018. The listed DCM Randall Merideth arrived at post in August 2017.

Although we don’t have the date, the embassy’s top two officials must have departed post sometime this past winter.  By March 2019, CDA Robert Scott was listed as CDA (chargé d’affaires), with Sam Watson as DCM (deputy chief of mission).  As of this writing, the U.S. Embassy in Libreville is headed by Chargé d’Affaires Sam Watson.  The June 18, 2019 Key Officers of Foreign Service Posts for Gabon (PDF) does not list a Deputy Chief of Mission.

We understand that retired Ambassador Robert Whitehead who was appointed three times as  Chargé d’Affaires to Sudan and was previously the U.S. Ambassador to Togo (2012-2015) has been recalled to service as full ambassador to Libreville. He reportedly arrived in D.C. this past weekend for consultations before going to post. 

The OIG inspection team was headed by former Ambassador to Micronesia Peter Prahar.  Below are selected excerpts from the OIG report on Gabon. You may read the entire report here (PDF).

Post Snapshot:

At the time of the inspection, Embassy Libreville had 36 U.S. direct-hire positions, 116 LE staff members, and 8 eligible family member positions. Other agencies at the embassy included the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior. The Department of State (Department) completed the new embassy compound, including the chancery, a warehouse, and other facilities, in 2012. [..] A related classified inspection report discusses the embassy’s security program and issues affecting the safety of embassy personnel and facilities.

OIG Sources:

OIG assessed Embassy Libreville’s leadership on the basis of 73 interviews that included comments on Front Office performance; staff questionnaires; and OIG’s review of documents and observations of embassy meetings and activities during the course of the on-site inspection.

Front Office Background:

The Ambassador, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, arrived in Gabon in March 2018 after an assignment as Associate Dean of the Department’s Foreign Service Institute School of Professional and Area Studies. His previous assignments included management and political positions in Belize, Switzerland, and Afghanistan, and he served as Deputy Special Coordinator in the Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator.

The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), a career Foreign Service officer, arrived in August 2017 after an assignment as director of the Minneapolis Passport Agency. His previous Department assignments included consular and management positions in Cote d’Ivoire, Afghanistan, South Africa, and Germany. He had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon.

Ambassador Did Not Set a Positive and Professional Tone for the Embassy

OIG found that the Ambassador did not set a positive and professional tone for the embassy in accordance with Department leadership and management principles outlined in 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM). In interviews with embassy staff, OIG found that the Ambassador’s verbal outbursts created anxiety and impeded communication and embassy operations. The Ambassador told OIG that he was passionate and committed to improving embassy operations and advancing U.S. interests in Gabon but that he became increasingly frustrated when the staff did not appear to respond to his directives or keep him informed of significant developments. He also acknowledged that he sometimes cursed at employees. American and LE staff told OIG that they were reluctant to provide the Ambassador with complete information on developing situations, fearing they would receive a negative reaction if he did not like what he heard. Finally, OIG noted during the inspection that the Ambassador was in conflict with a key member of the embassy’s security team over an issue that occurred 2 months before the inspection. This conflict resulted in an almost complete lack of communication between the Ambassador and this individual. In discussing the conflict with OIG, the Ambassador agreed that it was essential for embassy security that he take action to repair his relationship with the security team.

The Department’s leadership and management principles require leaders to hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct and to be self-aware. OIG advised the Ambassador to take advantage of the Department’s leadership and coaching programs. The Ambassador welcomed the advice, telling OIG that it was exactly the type of feedback he had hoped to obtain from the inspection. He also committed to work on his tone with staff by moderating the volume of his voice and eliminating the use of profanities.

Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission Did Not Form an Effective Leadership Team

The Ambassador and the DCM did not form an effective leadership team, as described in 2 FAM 113.2, which requires the DCM to serve as alter ego to a chief of mission in coordinating mission activity to meet broad program needs. Specifically, OIG found that the Ambassador did not establish clear expectations for the DCM regarding his responsibilities to manage the embassy. For example, the two officers had not agreed on a work requirements statement for the DCM, which should have been prepared within 45 days of the Ambassador’s arrival in March 2018, as required by 3 FAH-1 H-2815.1a(1). In discussing this issue with OIG, the Ambassador agreed that he had been remiss in not making it clear to the DCM what was expected of him. OIG also found that the Ambassador directly assigned tasks to LE staff members without informing the DCM or section chiefs. He told OIG his intent in doing this was to be personable, accessible, and aware of embassy operations. However, OIG found that the Ambassador was unaware that the practice frustrated supervisors. Embassy supervisors told OIG that although they often did not know about the assignments, the Ambassador subsequently would hold them accountable if the projects were not completed.

Oh, Lordy!

OIG found the DCM to be generally unengaged in embassy operations, unfamiliar with the work of the embassy’s sections, and uninvolved in performance management, as discussed later in this report. The DCM told OIG that in the 6 months prior to the inspection, he had prioritized introducing the Ambassador to Gabon but that in the future he would turn his attention to embassy operations.

Deputy Chief of Mission May Have Violated Anti-Nepotism Guidelines

The DCM likely did not comply with the requirements of 3 FAM 8312 to avoid nepotism and the appearance of nepotism in all employment matters. Embassy staff told OIG that the DCM repeatedly urged them to identify an embassy job for his spouse, either by selecting her for an eligible family member position or by encouraging other embassy agencies to create a position for her. This conduct is inconsistent with Department policy. Guidelines in 3 FAM 8324 state that an employee must scrupulously insulate himself or herself from acts benefiting, affecting, or giving the appearance of benefiting or affecting a relative’s career or responsibilities. The DCM denied to OIG that he had pressured anyone to create a position for his spouse or that he had made any comments to compel another embassy agency to hire his spouse. However, based on a review of documentation and interviews with embassy staff, OIG found that the DCM’s actions to secure embassy employment for his spouse likely violated Department standards. Additionally, as discussed further in the Human Resources section of this report, his conduct negatively affected embassy operations, as embassy staff sought to avoid the issue entirely by not advertising to fill any vacant eligible family member positions.

Embassy Did Not Advertise Eligible Family Member Positions (Or how five vacancies could have been filled by  5 of 8 EFMs) 

At the time of the inspection, the embassy had four vacant eligible family member positions that it had not advertised. In addition, another family member was due to transfer within a month, but the embassy had not advertised for a replacement. Management staff told OIG they were reluctant to advertise any eligible family member positions because they feared pressure to select the DCM’s spouse for one of the positions. (This is discussed in more detail in the Executive Direction section.) OIG advised the embassy to advertise and to comply with Department standards if the DCM’s spouse applies for the vacant positions. Failure to advertise eligible family member positions hindered the embassy’s operational efficiency.

Deputy Chief of Mission Did Not Review Nonimmigrant Visa Adjudications as Required

The DCM did not review nonimmigrant visa adjudications in a timely manner, as required by Department guidelines. A Bureau of Consular Affairs analysis showed that from April 1 through June 15, 2018, the DCM reviewed nonimmigrant visa adjudications twice, with an average lag time of 90 days between the visa adjudications and the DCM’s reviews. According to 9 FAM 403.12-1d, however, reviewing officers must review adjudications within 3 business days. The DCM had no explanation for this deficiency. Failure to review visa adjudications in a timely manner increases the risk of visa malfeasance or improper adjudications.

Ambassador, Deputy Chief of Mission Failed to Establish Work Requirements for American Personnel

Neither the Ambassador nor the DCM followed Department guidelines regarding completion of work requirements for American staff. Specifically, at the time of the inspection, the Ambassador and the DCM had not established written work requirements for any of their subordinates within 45 days of the beginning of the rating cycle, as required by 3 FAH-1 H- 2815.1a(1). Developing work requirements ensures that both the supervisor and subordinate participate in the process to develop a mutual understanding of the expectations for the subordinate’s work and how it aligns with the embassy’s goals and priorities. The DCM told OIG he was unfamiliar with Foreign Service performance management requirements because, in his previous assignment, he had only supervised Civil Service employees. Failure to establish work requirements in a timely manner disadvantages employees and can harm operations. Without clear expectations set at the beginning of the performance cycle, employees risk not understanding how to meet or exceed their supervisor’s expectations to achieve organizational objectives.

Embassy Did Not Comply with Department Guidelines on Acceptance of Gifts

The embassy did not adhere to 2 FAM 960 guidelines regarding the solicitation and acceptance of gifts to the Department. Embassy staff told OIG that the embassy did not review the list of companies solicited for July 4th contributions to ensure that proposed donors were neither seeking substantial assistance from the embassy nor would be substantially affected by a pending or reasonably anticipated official action, as required by 2 FAM 962.8a(1). As a result, at least one company for which the Ambassador had actively advocated was solicited for a contribution. The Ambassador also accepted travel on an aircraft chartered by the same company without seeking concurrence of White House Counsel, as required by 2 FAM 962.12h. Failure to comply with these guidelines could create the appearance of partiality or favoritism on the part of the U.S. Government.

And more!

State/OIG made 28 recommendations.  The Department and the U.S. Agency for Global Media concurred with 25 recommendations and disagreed with 3. State/OIG Recommendation 1 says that “The Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources should review whether anti-nepotism violations occurred at Embassy Libreville and, based on the results of its review, take appropriate action. (Action: DGHR).”

In its May 29, 2019, response, DGHR disagreed with this recommendation. “DGHR does not concur with the recommendation. The individual in question has left the Department, so no further action is necessary.” 

The report’s second recommendation says that “Embassy Libreville should comply with Department guidelines regarding the acceptance of gifts. (Action: Embassy Libreville)”

Management Response: In its June 3, 2019, response, Embassy Libreville disagreed with this recommendation. The embassy noted that the travel was not provided as a gift and that travel orders were issued for the Ambassador to accompany Board of Directors members to observe the offshore drilling site by helicopter and return by commercial aircraft. The embassy also noted that actions taken by the Ambassador and embassy staff to facilitate access of a U.S. company to the appropriate Gabonese Government officials were consistent with the guidance provided in 2 Foreign Affairs Manual 962.8 that the entity was not “…seeking substantial assistance from post (e.g., nonroutine consular assistance or nonroutine commercial advocacy or assistance) nor would be substantially affected by a pending or reasonably anticipated post official action….”

OIG writes that it considers the recommendation unresolved. “Notwithstanding the embassy’s rationale, the Ambassador’s acceptance of travel on an aircraft chartered by a company for which the Ambassador actively advocated could create the appearance of partiality or favoritism on the part of the U.S. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation of Embassy Libreville’s compliance with Department guidelines regarding the acceptance of gifts.”

OIG’s number 3 recommendation says “Embassy Libreville should comply with Department instructions and guidance on reporting significant political, economic, and societal developments.”

Management Response: In its June 3, 2019, response, Embassy Libreville disagreed with this recommendation. The embassy noted it complies with reporting guidance and dispatched cables and communications on significant political, economic, and societal developments through every channel available despite a severely depleted formal reporting staff.

OIG writes that it considers the recommendation unresolved. “During the inspection, OIG identified numerous instances where the Ambassador did not report the results of substantive meetings with business leaders, host government officials, and other senior contacts. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation that Embassy Libreville is reporting on significant political, economic, and societal developments.”

 

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