By Patricia H. Kushlis
I have been writing about corruption and cronyism in the State Department's Human Resources Bureau for the last several years .
My reporting has consistently led to one conclusion -- that State's personnel system -- which affects both Civil and Foreign Service employees -- has run amok. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Joan Wadelton.
Several years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to Joan, a veteran career Foreign Service Officer. My friend knew that I had written several posts about the State Department’s mistreatment of its human capital and the dysfunctional personnel system that has been behind it. He also knew that Joan had been quietly, patiently and relentlessly fighting the Department’s Bureau of Human Resources in an effort to save her career for years.
Joan’s troubles began in 2000. That was 12 years ago. Her case is complicated. I have followed its macabre twists and turns since 2008. They never cease to amaze. I have not written about them until now, however, because Joan preferred that her story remain private -- she had hoped to settle quietly -- until, that is, now.
In the end, Joan's accomplishments and successive strong recommendations for promotion in her annual performance reviews didn't matter. On December 16, 2011, the Department -- based on evidence that could most charitably be described as irregular -- fired her, claiming that she had not been promoted into the Senior Foreign Service.
In fact, Joan's challenges to State's antiquated and opaque personnel system and her whistleblowing about HR's misdeeds were her undoing. For years, a rotating case of Foreign and Civil Service employees have apparently used the personnel system for personal gain, to promote their friends, to punish those they dislike and to retaliate against anyone who defies them. Joan's refusal to hand off her prestigious Congressional liaison office project to HR to pass to its cronies, resulted in an immediate (although fortunately futile) retaliatory effort by HR to put her on leave without pay. This conflict proved to be the start of years of run-ins with HR management who have blocked assignments, lost files, invented fraudulent documents and tampered with results of promotion boards to make it appear as if she had never been promoted.
Foreign Service Grievance Board: Round 1 -- Chaos and Questions
In 2006, fed up with the relentless efforts by HR to undermine her career and deny her rightful promotions, Joan took her case to the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) -- triggering an odyssey which has equaled any Rod Serling-engineered trip through the Twilight Zone. At Joan's request, the FSGB ordered the Department to reconstitute six boards for the years 2003, 2004 and 2005 (during this period Joan had created the Congressional Liaison Office, been one of the first civilians in Iraq, and been the Iraq advisor to an Under Secretary). Astonishingly, when the result of the six boards came back, Joan had come in last five times, and second to last once.
A 2009 hearing before the Foreign Service Grievance Board revealed that HR’s handling of the reconstituted boards was far worse than sloppy. HR had no procedures for running such boards although the mechanism has been used for years. As a consequence, staff played fast and loose with the conduct, proceedings and implementation of promotion board findings and decisions. Among the FSGB's findings were:
-- that reconstituted board members questioned the final candidate rankings (including Joan's) of the boards they were on;
-- that boards were chaotic -- so much so that board members and chairpersons not only did not know what the final candidate rankings were, they did not even know who had allegedly been the other members of their own boards;
-- that board members did not believe they had certified final results;
-- that individuals shown as having sat on the boards (and whose purported signatures appear on the official results document) said that they had not; and
-- that the results of three of the six boards had been finalized by HR staff before those boards had supposedly met.
Confronted with this, the FSGB -- instead of mandating that State settle with Joan -- decided to split the difference. It found squarely for Joan on the merits of her case, but as a remedy ordered HR to reconstitute six more boards to review and rank the same three years of her performance. The FSGB did not, however, order State to regularize its procedures for conducting the six new boards, assign new staff to oversee them or to bring in outside oversight as should have occurred but hadn’t. As a consequence, the State charade continued.
The Foreign Service Grievance Board: Round 2 -- Suspicious Documents
The second set of boards, held in 2011, improbably reached exactly the same conclusions as the 2006 boards -- Joan came in last five times and second from last once. To bolster this claim, HR produced what it said were the board members’ score sheets from each of the six boards. These score sheets are worth a look -- they have seemingly been extensively and crudely altered:
-- there are patches of white-out everywhere;
-- high scores received by Joan have been lowered either by using white-out or write-overs;
-- although each score sheet was theoretically written by one person, there are multiple hands obvious on many of them (for example, the number "7" appears with a cross-hatch or without a cross-hatch in many sheets; variants of the number "3" can be seen in multiple score sheets ); and
-- in one bizarre instance, a panel allegedly voted one candidate an "86" although the highest possible score is "60" and the actual scores totaled "55." (Think about it: all board members were recruited from the senior levels of the Foreign Service. Could their third grade math skills possibly be that poor?)
All of the score sheets from the six 2011 reconstituted boards are found here. Take a look and decide for yourself: Download Joan Score Sheet.
Watch Dogs Gone Missing
As this went on, Joan and many others reported HR abuses to State's Office of the Inspector General and Congress. State's OIG for years refused to act on these allegations, rather reporting the complaints -- and the names of the complainants -- to HR. Joan fared better with Congress, which found her credible, repeatedly registering its concerns with State and making several formal requests for an investigation into her claims. The Department ignored or summarily dismissed all such communications from the Hill.
However, in 2010, perhaps concerned about the increasingly pervasive nature of these abuses, the OIG did an investigation into promotions in the Foreign Service .
-- that there were no procedures for the conduct of reconstituted boards and that they were chaotic;
-- that individuals who had served on promotion boards reported that the candidate rankings they had submitted to HR were "at variance" with the final published promotion lists; and
-- that promotion board members denied having certified the final results of their boards.
Although the 2010 report indicated that Joan was far from an exception, the OIG refused to investigate further HR‘s apparent mishandling of such cases, saying that since HR keeps no records of promotion board activities, it would be pointless. But there is mcuh more to it than that.
Joan’s case doesn’t just illustrate a personnel system riddled with corruption and cronyism, it is a massive failure of oversight. While the blame for this at the end of the day must be laid at the feet of a succession of senior HR managers, the State Department has not had a functioning OIG in years, allowing HR's malignant activities to flourish. The only bright note on the horizon is that Congress is now seized with the many failings of State's OIG. Bipartisan disgust with complaints from State employees has generated work on legislation to completely overhaul the OIG's organization and function.
Rather than submit to another extended and evidently fraudulent HR process, Joan moved to federal court in 2011 where the battle rages on. HR remains undetered by an FSGB decision for Joan on the merits, an OIG report which substantiates her claims and her possession of a wheelbarrow full of suspect documents. Does the Department's frantic desire to be rid of Joan spring from the fact that her accusations ring true? Why else have they expended hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars over a period of years defending a case that is so shockingly egregious? I can only wonder.
The Broader Implications
In the end, this story is not just about Joan and her long battle with HR -- that is really just the tip of a large, submerged iceberg. Joan's experience began in 2000. That leaves the possibility of dozens -- if not more -- of FSOs forced out on false grounds. How many other excellent employees in both the Civil and Foreign Services have had their careers derailed or ended by the indiscriminate behavior of HR? Is Joan really the only one? I don't think so.
The issues raised by HR's conduct are not insignificant: tampering with official federal documents and interfering with official government proceedings are criminal matters. This system and the people who run it must change -- for the health of the Department as well as the practice of American diplomacy. How can the US look others straight in the eye, preaching the virtues of democratic governance, when it can't even operate its oldest bureaucracy -- and a corps of proud employees smaller than the number of musicians in its military bands -- with integrity.
I am interested in knowing of other cases of abuse by HR -- whether of Foreign or Civil Service employees. You may share your story in the comment section, or you may e-mail me at email@example.com if you wish to keep your story private.