Re­cent scan­dal cast some of ‘bright­est’ feds in a harsh light

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JIM MCELHATTON

Cre­ated un­der Pres­i­dent Carter, the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice was de­signed to pro­mote the best and bright­est in federal govern­ment to trans­form the na­tion’s bu­reau­cracy.

But a se­ries of scan­dals in­clud­ing the IRS tar­get­ing of tea party groups, the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ cooked books on med­i­cal care and highly paid em­ploy­ees wast­ing govern­ment time has cast the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice in an em­bar­rass­ing light, prompt­ing con­gres­sional law­mak­ers to ques­tion whether the elite cadre of the federal work­ers is liv­ing up to its prom­ise.

“We’ve seen scan­dals like a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive re­lax­ing in a hot tub with a glass of wine on the tax­pay­ers’ dime, while an­other re­fuses to co­op­er­ate with Congress de­spite her ad­mis­sion that her em­ploy­ing agency tar­geted con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions for ap­ply­ing for tax-ex­empt sta­tus,” Rep. Blake Far­en­thold, Texas Repub­li­can, said Fri­day as he be­gan a House hear­ing on the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice.

The Wash­ing­ton Times has re­ported on other ex­ec­u­tive ser­vice scan­dals, too, in­clud­ing nepo­tism in­side the U.S. Patent and Trade­mark Of­fice, a high-rank­ing of­fi­cial at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency sell­ing weight loss prod­ucts at work and a VA of­fi­cial who lied about her ed­u­ca­tional cre­den­tials.

The the­ory be­hind the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice was to have highly skilled tech­nocrats who could help whip govern­ment agencies into shape, trad­ing best prac­tices and squelch­ing bad ideas.

Mr. Far­en­thold said in an in­ter­view Mon­day that a highly trained ex­ec­u­tive corps can be good, but the “cross-pol­li­na­tion” that was crit­i­cal to the idea hasn’t hap­pened.

Carol Bonosaro, pres­i­dent of the Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice As­so­ci­a­tion, said mis­con­duct should be pun­ished but that it was un­fair to tar­nish the roughly 7,000 ex­ec­u­tive ser­vice em­ploy­ees be­cause of the re­cent scan­dals.

“It’s re­ally is a shame that the en­tire SES is be­ing tarred with this brush,” she said. “There has been a rush to judg­ment.”

While is­sues have popped up in a num­ber of agencies, the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Depart­ment has come un­der par­tic­u­lar fire af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors said top of­fi­cials were al­ter­ing ap­point­ment books to make wait times ap­pear lower than they ac­tu­ally were, thus earn­ing the ex­ec­u­tives un­war­ranted bonuses.

Still, not a sin­gle se­nior man­ager out of 470 re­ceived less than a “fully suc­cess­ful” per­for­mance re­view in fis­cal 2013.

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Repub­li­can and chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs, said at a hear­ing last month that there were “too many ex­am­ples” to show how VA ex­ec­u­tive bonuses don’t en­sure good per­for­mance.

Mr. Far­en­thold has co-spon­sored leg­is­la­tion that he says would get rid of the red tape in fir­ing or de­mot­ing VA se­nior ex­ec­u­tives.

“The ques­tion is do we want to go as far [with other agencies] and how do we strike a bal­ance to avoid a po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age sys­tem,” he said in a phone in­ter­view Mon­day.

But Ms. Bonosaro said a process is in place for agencies to fire Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice em­ploy­ees, and mak­ing them “at will” em­ploy­ees could cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment in which po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees at­tempt to “clean out” their agencies and bring in un­qual­i­fied can­di­dates.

She also said the prob­lems at the VA stemmed from po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees’ de­ci­sions, not the ca­reer ex­ec­u­tives.

“The sys­temic is­sues at VA will re­main ir­re­spec­tive of changes in the per­son­nel sys­tem be­cause these sys­temic is­sues are ones which po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship has failed to ad­dress,” she said at last week’s House hear­ing.

Last month, The Wash­ing­ton Times re­ported on an­other ex­ec­u­tive at the VA, Sheila Cullen, who as di­rec­tor of the depart­ment’s Sierra Pa­cific Net­work re­ceived more than $40,000 in bonuses around the time VA in­ves­ti­ga­tors found she had lied about hav­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree, records show.

Mean­while, at the EPA, the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice re­cently con­firmed that it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing a Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­vice em­ployee who hired rel­a­tives as in­terns while sell­ing weight loss prod­ucts from the of­fice.

Last week, The Times re­ported that Deb­o­rah Cohn, a U.S. Patent and Trade­mark com­mis­sioner, threat­ened to sue to block the pub­lic re­lease of a re­port that con­cluded she pres­sured staff to hire a rel­a­tive’s live-in boyfriend.

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