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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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Presidential Appointees With Senate Confirmation (PAS) and the Hatch Act

Posted: 12:52 am EDT

 

Via U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) | Hatch Act:

 

 

The Hatch Act, a federal law passed in 1939, limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. ​The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation.​ Below is an excerpt from its FAQ on Presidential Appointee With Senate Confirmation (PAS):

I am an employee who was appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate (PAS). Am I covered by the Hatch Act?

Yes. An employee appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate (PAS), is subject to the provisions of the Hatch Act. However, certain PAS’s are not subject to the Act’s prohibition against engaging in political activity while on duty, in a federal room or building, wearing an official uniform or insignia, or using a government vehicle. To be exempt from this prohibition, a PAS must meet all of the following criteria:

1) the duties and responsibilities of his position must continue outside normal duty hours and while away from the normal duty post;

2) his position must be located within the United States; and

3) he must determine policies to be pursued by the United States in relations with foreign powers or in the nationwide administration of federal laws.

If a PAS meets all these criteria, he is not prohibited from engaging in political activity while on duty, in a federal room or building, wearing an official uniform or insignia, or using a government vehicle, provided the costs associated with the political activity are not paid for by money derived from the Treasury of the United States. However, the PAS remains subject to all the other prohibitions of the Hatch Act, and thus, may not: use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election; knowingly solicit, accept, or receive a political contribution from any person; be a candidate for public office in a partisan election; or knowingly solicit or discourage the political activity of any person who has business before the employee’s employing office.​​​

I am an employee who was appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate (PAS). Does the exemption from the Hatch Act’s prohibition against engaging in political activity while on duty, which applies to me, also apply to my staff?

No. Assuming a Presidential appointee with Senate confirmation (PAS) meets the criteria outlined in the answer to the previous question, he—but only he—may engage in political activity while on duty, in a government room or building, wearing an official uniform or insignia, or using a government vehicle, so long as, the costs associated with the political activity are not paid for by money derived from the Treasury of the United States. The appointee’s staff, however, is not subject to this exemption. Therefore, the appointee’s staff members are still prohibited from engaging in political activity while on duty, in a federal room or building, wearing an official uniform or insignia, or using a government vehicle.​​

May an Presidential appointee with Senate confirmation (PAS), ask his chief of staff (or any other subordinate employee) to contact and/or liaise with a political party to find out where, or if, the party needs the PAS’s help?

No. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees, including PAS’s, from soliciting or accepting uncompensated volunteer services for any political purpose from an individual who is a subordinate. 5 C.F.R. §§ 734.302(b)(3)​734.303(d)​​. Thus, the Act prohibits a supervisor from asking subordinate employees to contact a political party to inquire about opportunities for the PAS to assist the party.​​​

Click here for the printable FAQ (PDF). OSC also issues advisory opinions to persons seeking advice about their political activity under the Hatch Act. Individuals or their legal representatives may request an opinion about their own political activity. E-mail: hatchact@osc.gov.

 

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Related post:

Eight days till election day – do you know your Hatch Act Rules?