By Patricia H. Kushlis
Where is the GAO when we need it? Whatever happened to Congressional oversight? Or, for that matter, how about a Justice Department dedicated to administering justice?
Thousands of people worldwide have read my two previous posts about Joan Wadelton and her lengthy fight against corruption in the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources. In case you missed them, these posts - State Department Human Resources: A System Run Amok and The State of State: Joan's Case Continued - are right here on WhirledView.
To recap, Joan has been battling HR for eight years over its claims that she should be forcibly retired because she was not promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. HR cites the results of 12 promotion boards reconstituted by order of the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) -- six in 2006 and six more in 2011 (in both instances two boards each for the years 2003, 2004 and 2005). Joan was inexplicably ranked at the bottom each and every time.
In rebuttal, Joan cites her superb record and her impeccable performance reviews. During the three years in question she created the State Department's high profile Congressional liaison office, was one of the first State officials in Iraq and was the first Iraq advisor to State's Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. She also points to the mathematical improbability of such consistent results from the promotion panels, the large number of procedural irregularities surrounding the panels' deliberations, testimony by panel members disputing HR's claims and fraudulent documents associated with HR’s defense.
The Foreign Service Grievance Board found in 2010 that the six 2006 reconstituted boards were so irregular as to be worthless in evaluating Joan for promotion. Good. That however, is as far as this red flag went.
The FSGB then ordered that Joan’s files be reviewed by six more reconstituted boards -- without mandating that HR change either its procedures or the personnel administering the new boards. According to HR, those six additional boards -- held in 2011 -- once again ranked Joan at the bottom every time.1
Joan was fired in December 2011. The case is now in federal district court.
Here's this post’s four part game plan:
1. “Cover UP’s R Us” is an update on Joan’s court case and State's frantic attempts to keep key facts out of court.
2. “A Story State HR Would Prefer You Not to Hear” provides background to her claims of longstanding HR corruption through an incredible story from an earlier phase of her litigation -- specifically Joan's autumn 2009 hearing before the Foreign Service Grievance Board.
3. “Failsafe Measures Fail” reviews the many systemic failures that have allowed this appalling case to continue for so many years.
4. “Some Observations” are a few my own thoughts -- which some others must also share, judging from the comments and personal stories I have received since I starting reporting Joan’s story.
1. Cover-ups R Us
As I predicted last time around, State continues to resist providing evidence that should be considered by the federal judge hearing Joan's case. In particular, clarifications relating to the 2011 reconstituted promotion panel members' score sheets that I discussed in my two previous posts. The score sheets Download Joan-score-sheet show signs of extensive and crude alterations.
Last week, the Justice Department (on behalf of State) filed yet again in federal district court opposing Joan’s attorneys’ request to see the originals of the 2011 score sheets and to depose the individuals who purportedly sat on the 2011 reconstituted boards and produced the score sheets. State's refusal for the most part relies on legal technicalities.
But the State filing also did what HR always does when backed into a corner -- it quoted HR procedures. No one doubts that HR has procedures, had procedures, should have had procedures (or, unfortunately, that they will invent them when needed); the issue is HR’s pervasive abuse of its procedures. Language, for instance, submitted by the government in last week's filing in Federal District Court against Joan’s case was apparently intended to clarify issues with the infamous 2011 score sheets. On the contrary, it strengthens Joan's contention of defects in them. 2
The obvious way to clear up the question of whether or not official federal documents have been altered (a crime under 18 USC 1001) is to review the original documents and to interview the panel chairpersons and members. As I said above, Joan asked to do just that. The response: a resounding “No.”
Why is State pushing back so hard?
My best guess? A couple of options:
a) The original score sheets exist – perhaps hidden away in a vault somewhere - and are thick with obviously illegal changes. Or b) the originals have long since been destroyed - HR not being sensitive to the penalties for destruction of evidence in a federal judicial proceeding.
And why keep Joan’s attorneys away from the people whom HR claims sat on those 2011 panels and produced the score sheets? Would, perhaps it be because they would take one look at the heavily altered documents and say “I have no idea what this is?” This, of course, would further strengthen Joan’s already strong claims of document-tampering by HR officials.
This is nothing more than a garden variety Washington cover-up. If the State Department has nothing to hide, then it should grant access to the documents and panel members. In fact, it should have done so years ago. It shouldn’t respond to legitimate demands for transparency by inventing ever more bizarre explanations for illegal activities.
2. A Story from Joan’s 2009 FSGB Hearing that HR Would Really Prefer You Not Hear
The FSO testified (under oath) that before the convening of an annual summer promotion board on which she was to serve, an HR official called her in for a chat. The official had been in HR for many years, achieving a position of some responsibility. During this conversation, the HR official gave the FSO a list of all the many candidates whose files the board would review. Thirteen of the candidate names on the list were checked; the HR official instructed the FSO to do whatever possible during the board deliberations to ensure that these 13 candidates were promoted.
This FSO also testified that she was not alone in receiving marching orders to skew the promotion board’s results. She testified that when the board she chaired went into its deliberations, two other board members also had lists of people their respective bureaus had ordered them to push for promotion. The FSO ignored the HR official's instructions, basing her recommendations for promotion solely on merit.
Faced with these allegations, HR (in the second half of the hearing) called as witnesses the HR official and the two members of the promotion board alleged to have brought lists of favored bureau candidates to the promotion board deliberations. All three denied the accusations under oath.
Thereafter things became interesting. Someone called State’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) to look into the allegations (not Joan, by then she would not have called the OIG to walk her dog). The HR official, however, is rumored - and I say this only as rumor - to have told investigators that she had indeed been making changes to various promotion and bonus pay lists -- at the request of HR management.
Subsequently, the OIG prepared some sort of report about the allegations, finding that: “It‘s all good!”
Yet, as for the HR official, she retired abruptly, to the surprise of many of her colleagues and friends, who had not had even a whiff of her imminent departure previously.
And the woman who went on the record before the FSGB with allegations of tampering with a promotion board? She has been the victim of an HR vendetta -- vicious even by their standards -- ever since.
So what to make of these allegations? If true, they demonstrate an intent of HR and other State Department officials to pervert the promotion process in at least this one instance. Furthermore, they call into question the integrity of the annual summer promotion boards – not only the reconstituted boards which are the subject of Joan’s suit. It also means that every candidate evaluated by that annual promotion board was denied a fair review.
This is serious - with implications for the entire Foreign Service – and it didn’t just begin yesterday – or even when Joan filed her first grievance. The gritty truth needs to be uncovered and examined in the light of day. Therefore, let the OIG publish its real findings. Or better yet -- given the OIG's longstanding lack of credibility in matters involving HR -- let the GAO and/or some other outside impartial entity investigate and publish the findings.
3. When Failsafe Measures Fail
Although I began this series with a post entitled “State Department Human Resources -- A System Run Amok” that characterization is not broad enough -- it should really include other parts of State and the US government. Multiple entities should have put a stop to Joan's case when it became abundantly clear (as it did early on) that something was very wrong.
Sadly and inexplicably, the following checks built into the State Department and US justice systems have failed spectacularly over the last eight years:
The HR grievance process. When faced with Joan’s allegations of criminal wrongdoing by its own staff, HR management should have called in the Department’s own OIG for a thorough investigation and cleaned house. Instead, the case continued with Joan in the unenviable position of litigating her allegations of HR wrongdoing against HR itself -- a clear conflict of interest;
1. The Foreign Service Grievance Board -- which ruled that the six reconstituted promotion boards HR held for Joan in 2006 were fatally flawed -- and then sent her back to HR for yet more reconstituted boards -- without mandating any safeguards in HR procedures or personnel;
2. State’s OIG -- which has heard complaints about HR for years -- should have long ago conducted a rigorous investigation, fired malefactors and instituted reforms. Instead, the OIG’s standard response has been either to hand complainants about HR wrongdoing back to HR, or to play cover-up. This cover-up was brought into public view with the OIG's 2010 report on promotions in the Foreign Service, where it found profound irregularities, but did nothing to correct them. (See the OIG Report and my analysis of it.)
3. State’s Office of the Legal Advisor -- which took over from HR when the case moved into federal district court -- where Joan’s filings include embarrassing details of wrongdoing at State. There surely must be attorneys in the Legal Advisor’s Office who realize that the assertions HR is making are nonsensical and that the evidence State is presenting in court is likely fraudulent. When HR handed the Legal Advisor’s Office this case, its lawyers should have taken a hard look, called the OIG and recommended a clean-up of HR; and
4. The Justice Department – called in to represent State in federal district court -- which when confronted by Joan’s motions regarding possible criminal wrongdoing, should have told the State Department to pull itself together and referred the matter to Justice’s criminal division for investigation.
And yet none of this happened. No failsafe has worked. Today not only is the Foreign Service promotion system being perverted, so is the US justice system, as State and Justice mount a frontal attack to keep convincing evidence of fraud out of the hands of a federal judge.
4. Some Observations
As I’ve said before, the cost to the taxpayers in salaries and other expenses to pursue an unending case that involves fraud and very likely criminal activity has been astronomical. It rises as you read this post. As a taxpayer, I object to having my dollars used to support corruption, cover-ups and vendettas at the State Department.
Moreover, it is simply impossible to believe that HR has done this to Joan and Joan alone. Behavior this extreme must be the result of a longstanding culture of corruption hiding behind a wall of secrecy that has likely led to the abuse and mistreatment of hundreds of State employees over years – if not decades.
An especially disturbing aspect of this story that requires righting is the retaliation that individuals have suffered after blowing the whistle on HR wrongdoing. Not only is retaliation against whistleblowers illegal, it has a chilling effect on future whistleblowers, allowing corruption to flourish.
Finally, it is clear that this aberrant behavior is endemic and deeply rooted in the bowels and psyche of HR. I see no evidence that it will stop without outside, impartial investigation and intervention – most likely initiated by Congress. The Fourth Estate, the investigative media, has long gone missing: this kind of corruption is far too complex for the average reporter. Besides it’s just not sexy enough to compete with the likes of Brittany Spears or “Dancing with the Stars” – despite the fact it revolves around corruption in the heart of this country’s oldest cabinet department.
Chances of a new Administration cleaning house – given the dismal track record of both Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State since this case was first filed - is, in my view, questionable. That it presses mindlessly ahead in some kind of parallel universe and State is allowed to continue to litigate Joan’s case is proof enough.
1 In fact there were 15 reconstituted boards -- not the 12 mandated by the FSGB. HR held three extra boards for no apparent reason; no documents were produced to substantiate HR's claims that Joan had come in last each time. In total, HR says that Joan came in dead last 13 times and second from last two times -- probably figuring that it would seem unbelievable if they had her come in dead last all 15 times, and therefore mixed it up a bit.
2 Reconstituted Board members come together as a group and compile a master score sheet. The Reconstituted Board Chair records the scores on a master score sheet.
This language raises more questions than it answers. If master score sheets are part of standard promotion board procedures -- why are they largely missing from the package of 2011 score sheets provided by HR? (Documents "lost" by HR have been a recurrent problem since the beginning of Joan's case.) Were the master score sheets -- if they existed at all -- even more incriminating than the already incriminating individual score sheets? Rather than help explain the avalanche of defects in the 2011 score sheets, the missing master score sheets are simply one more defect in a long list that includes: mathematically impossible results; white-out on virtually all of the sheets; inconsistencies on score sheets from the same panel; examples of multiple handwritings and multiple writing instruments seen on single score sheets etc.