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Official Involved in Bush-Era Purge of Gay Employees Now in Trump Administration

by Justin Elliott,ProPublica
April 10, 2017, 2:27 p.m.

 

It was one of the uglier scandals of the Bush administration: Top officials at an agency dedicated to protecting whistleblowers launched a campaign against their own employees based on suspected sexual orientation, according to an inspector general report.

Staffers were abruptly reassigned from Washington, D.C., to a new office 500 miles away in Detroit in what the head of the office reportedly described as an effort to “ship [them] out.” Staffers who refused were fired.

Crude anti-gay emails were found in the agency chief’s account.

Now one of the major players in the scandal has a new assignment: He works in the Trump administration.

In December, James Renne was appointed to the Trump “landing team” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as part of the transition effort between the election and the inauguration. He was then hired Jan. 30 in a senior role at the Department of Agriculture, though his exact job duties are not clear.

Renne was part of the wave of early political appointees on so-called “beachhead teams,” whose role is to lay the groundwork for the new administration’s policies. (We published details on hundreds of beachhead hires, obtained through public records requests.)

In the Bush administration, Renne was hired in 2004 as deputy special counsel of the Office of Special Counsel, the small federal agency that is supposed to protect employees across the government from retaliation for whistleblowing. The tenures of Renne and his boss, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, were almost immediately mired in controversy after career employees said they were improperly fired. Language stating that job discrimination protections extend to sexual orientation also disappeared from the agency website.

A little-noticed inspector general report, released in 2013, depicts Renne as a central player in the efforts. Bloch and Renne, it found, hatched the plan to abruptly open a new “Midwest Field Office” in Detroit and reassign career staff there. Employees who declined to move lost their jobs.

The report found that the employees were targeted for no legitimate reason, pointing to “facts which reflect that Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne may have been motivated in their actions by a negative personal attitude toward homosexuality and individuals whose orientation is homosexual.”

One evening shortly after he was hired in 2004, Renne took the lead in removing the language from the agency’s website about how job protections cover sexual orientation, the report says.

From the report: “Mr. Renne was depicted as intently searching the OSC website with the assistance of a senior career official to identify passages which interpreted [the nondiscrimination law] as extending protection to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. According to this account, Mr. Renne demanded that OSC’s information technology manager remove these materials from the website immediately.”

That change was later the subject of congressional hearings.

Renne did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Agriculture, which hired him, declined to comment.

The scandal at the Office of Special Counsel dragged on for years, spawning congressional and criminal investigations.

In a formal complaint filed at the time, the employees who were reassigned to Detroit pointed to a “Concerned Catholic Attorneys” letter Renne had signed in 2000 that is a broadside against a range of gay rights efforts. It warns that the “homosexual lobby’s power has grown exponentially.”

The inspector general report found that Renne played a central role in the plan to open a Detroit office, noting that “the reorganization was formulated by Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne very early in their tenure.” An outside consultant they hired to help with the plan told investigators that “it appeared that Mr. Bloch may have been heavily influenced by Mr. Renne.”

That consultant, retired Lt. Gen. Richard Trefry, told investigators:

Mr. Bloch indicated to General Trefry that there was a sizeable group of homosexuals employed by OSC, which had developed during the years prior to his taking office, that he “had a license” to get rid of homosexual employees, and that he intended to “ship them out.”

The report continues:

Further, in the portions of Mr. Bloch’s official e-mail account that were available to the investigative team, there were crude and vulgar messages containing anti-homosexual themes that appeared to have been forwarded from his personal email. 2026 Similarly, Mr. Bloch’s public media references to [his predecessor as Special Counsel, Elaine] Kaplan contained repeated, negatively-phrased assertions regarding her sexual orientation. For example, in interviews he granted during 2007, Mr. Bloch described her as a “lesbian activist,” a “public lesbian,” a “well-known gay activist”, and similar depictions.

Now in private practice, Bloch told ProPublica the report is “filled with untruth, outright falsehoods, and innuendo.” When the report was released, Bloch denied that he ever talked about targeting gay employees.

The inspector general report says it was based on interviews with more than 60 people and examination of over 100,000 emails.

The affected employees ultimately came to a settlement with the government. The terms were not released.

During the investigation into his tenure, Bloch’s home and office were raided by the FBI and he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge arising from his hiring the company Geeks on Call to do a “seven-level wipe” on his government computers. Years later, Bloch later unsuccessfully sued the government over his firing.

There’s little public record of what Renne has been doing since his time working with Bloch. The Trump landing team announcement identified him as working for Renne Law. A fellow member of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence landing team said that Renne had worked at the ODNI inspector general office. And Bloch said he also heard that Renne had gotten a job in the intelligence community after their work together. An ODNI spokesman declined to comment.

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The OPM OIG report is available to read here — DS

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Quote of the Day: “I want it on my desk in one week, or I’m going to the Washington Post”

— Domani Spero

Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) gave his remarks at the 2014 Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Pride Conference on April 16, 2014.

The following is an excerpt:

On June 5, 1985, on my way to my very first day of training as a newly-minted U.S. diplomat, I glanced across our national Mall and saw the U.S. Capitol and its iconic dome. My heart was bursting with pride in the career I was embarking on to serve my country. At the very same time, I said to myself – and I meant it – “No one will ever hurt me because I am gay.” Yes, that was about 15 years after Stonewall, but it was also only about 30 years after the McCarthy purges of hundreds of gay diplomats and other public servants from the U.S. government. During the very first close-door briefing we newly-minted diplomats had from Diplomatic Security, we heard, “We don’t want homosexuals in the Foreign Service. If you are, we’ll hunt you down and drum you out!” I thought, “Yeah, you just try it.”

Although it was becoming a gray area, by the beginning of the 1990s, it was still possible that one’s security clearance could be jeopardized for being gay. After five years, it was time for my security clearance to be renewed, and – yes – it was held up for months and months. I finally got fed up. I went to the head of Diplomatic Security and said, “You have no reason to deny my security clearance. I want it on my desk in one week, or I’m going to the Washington Post.” It was on my desk in one week. Ten years later, by 2000, it was still nearly a radical act to include material about LGBT rights in the State Department’s annual Country Human Rights Reports. It wasn’t until just a handful of years ago that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a major speech at the United Nations in Geneva, “LGBT rights are human rights. Period.”
[…]
In closing, let me add one personal word of caution. There are times and places where I believe we need to temper our idealism with at least a certain degree of realpolitik. In our desire to do good, we should never forget the terribly important maxim, “First do no harm.” There are countries in the world, whether religiously or culturally deeply conservative, that will react to our values and goals with backlash against their own LGBT citizens. We should maintain enough humility to remember that we are terribly new at promoting LGBT human rights as U.S. foreign policy. Of course we want to do good – but we should do it, with patience, in a way that results in the maximum benefit for those we want to help.

Read the full remarks here.

Ambassador Hoagland, a career diplomat was previously U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008-2011), and U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan (2003-2006).  Life After Jerusalem recently posted about the five current ambassadors who are openly gay (see What’s Wrong With This Picture?). All five are also non-career political appointees.

Not too long ago….

According to David K. Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare: the Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, a 1952 procedures manual for security officers contained a nine-page section devoted entirely to homosexuality, the only type of security offense singled out for such coverage.  The book describes what took place “inside security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives.” It was referred to as “homosexual purges” which “ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide.” At the British Foreign Office, things were no better, Ambassador Charles Crawford’s 2010 piece, The love that dared not speak its name in the Foreign Office is a must read.

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