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