By Patricia H. Kushlis
This is the fifth in a series of posts about Joan Wadelton, a veteran Foreign Service officer fired last year for blowing the whistle on longstanding corruption in the State Department’s Human Resources Bureau. Here are links to the first four:
Joan’s story is widely followed -- both inside State and out. As a result of writing about it on WhirledView, I have continued to hear from other State officers about their own difficult encounters with the Department's Human Resources (HR) Bureau. It has become increasingly clear -- if there was ever a shadow of a doubt -- that while current and former HR employees are to blame -- the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is their primary enabler.
There are likely many motives involved. But I would not be surprised to discover that HR’s control over large cash performance pay awards, its ability to rehire retired friends and to grant them special lucrative pay status are part of the picture.
In this post I will briefly review Joan’s case in federal district court, then move on to her experiences with the OIG that has followed her requests for investigations into her allegations of HR corruption and criminality in 2002, 2006 and 2008. Finally, I will conclude with a few suggestions for the next Secretary of State to end HR’s long war against the Department's most precious resource -- its employees.
To Review the Bidding
Joan has been in litigation with HR for eight years -- first before the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) and now in federal district court. (There are likely cases that involve major drug lords that haven’t lasted this long.) She claims that HR changed the results of promotion boards that reviewed her personnel file, to make it appear as if she was never promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. HR asserts that all 15 promotion reconstituted boards it has held to review Joan's performance ranked her at the bottom every time.
Yet Joan has significant evidence for her allegations.
These include: fraudulent documents, apparently perjured witness testimony against her, witness testimony to support her arguments, the aggressive obstruction by HR and State’s legal advisor's staff of (another federal agency’s) the Office of Special Counsel’s attempts to investigate her case and more. Add to that a 2010 Foreign Service Grievance Board’s (FSGB) decision that held that the six boards HR reconstituted for Joan in 2006 were so severely flawed as to call into question the veracity of the results.
And, the peculiar results and documentation that HR produced for six boards reconstituted for her yet again in 2011 -- also at the direction of the FSGB. To support HR’s improbable claim that Joan came in at the bottom each time, HR coughed up what it insists are the worksheets of panel members who sat on those boards. The putative worksheets reveal clear -- indeed blatant and bizarre -- alterations.
Here are the score sheets for anyone tuning in for the first time: http://whirledview.typepad.com/files/joan-score-sheet-2.pdf
And read the analysis of the strange alterations. (WhirledView, "State Department Human Resources, A System Run Amok," March 14, 2012)
Based on this fraudulent evidence, State fired Joan in December 2011.
Despite the fact that State’s case appears to be based entirely on fraud, the State Department continues the fight with Joan in federal district court. In a recent motion, the State Department assured the court that the changes to the 2011 score sheets were “normal,” as promotion board members could be expected to change their minds about scores in the course of promotion board deliberations. Well maybe, but it does not explain handwriting changes in individual score sheets, inconsistent and aberrant scores and other problems that I noted in my March 2012 post above.
But it seems to me this is a strange claim in and of itself: after all these were supposedly final score sheets produced by senior Foreign Service Officers who should have gotten their act together before putting ink to paper. Besides, these officers should at least be able to do simple addition.
If true, however, it supports my suspicion that fraudulent evidence appears to be “normal” for HR.
Joan and the OIG
Although Joan has been in litigation against HR for eight years, she has been at war with them for 12. The fight began in 2000, not over something she did wrong, but something she did right. While detailed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joan did what no other State official had been able to achieve in decades of trying -- she laid the foundation to create State Department liaison offices in Congress. This was something then Secretary Colin Powell put at the top of his priority list understanding that State needed to improve its relations with the Hill if it wanted to be relevant. You might think this would have provoked praise and admiration from her colleagues at State, who had long bemoaned the poor relations between the Hill and the Department.
Well it did -- except in HR, where it provoked a desire to seize this high-profile project for itself. Particularly when the new Secretary of State, Colin Powell, designated establishment of the offices as a key goal for the Department during his tenure. Yet what happened next triggered a cascade of abuse on Joan by successive HR managers. This continues today.
Joan and the OIG: Round #1
Following her tour on Capitol Hill, Joan was slated for a career-enhancing Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) assignment. However, having pushed through legislation to jump start the Congressional offices, she felt committed to finishing the project by setting them up. In an August 2000 meeting with then-Deputy Director General Gretchen Welch, Joan volunteered to forego the prestigious DCM position to do just that. Welch’s response to Joan was: “I don’t care what you do, I am giving this project to my own people.” Not surprisingly, Joan was not receptive to this approach.
Thereafter, Welch -- without telling either Joan or the Senate -- ordered that Joan's assignment to the Hill be broken. When objections arose to Joan’s abrupt departure from the Senate, Welch attempted to put her on leave without pay. Depriving an employee of his or her salary is a serious matter, requiring cause, notice to the party involved, documentation and review -- all of which were missing in Welch’s order. Fortunately, Welch’s superiors reversed her whim before it was enacted and Joan was eventually tasked to establish State's first Congressional liaison office on the Hill.
Once Joan had the office in the House of Representatives up and running, she was ready to go overseas. Not surprisingly, she expected to be rewarded for her ground-breaking initiative in Congress and to receive an assignment that recognized it. However, this did not happen.
By then Ruth Davis was Director General and Ruth Whiteside was Deputy Director General. HR seemingly carried an institutional grudge against Joan, offering her assignments that were in no way communsurate to her rank or competencies. When Joan refused to take a position that was the exact equivalent of her assignment as a first-tour junior officer 20 years before, HR announced that she would be forcibly retired.
Forcibly retired for having achieved a goal -- creation of the congressional office -- that had been a departmental priority for two generations. HR put forward no grounds for this decision, because there were none -- not age, not poor performance and certainly no hint of scandal or criminal wrongdoing. Like Gretchen Welch’s attempt to put Joan on leave without pay several years earlier, this was simply another HR whim. HR was obliged to back down when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee refused to confirm any State Department nominees until the matter was settled to Joan's satisfaction, which it eventually was.
By this point, Joan had had enough of HR (or so she thought -- she could not have imagined this would still be going on nine years later) and went to the OIG with complaints of abuse of authority and mismanagement by senior HR officials. She met with a young investigator who -- when she described HR’s attempt to put her on leave without pay -- said “Oh yes, they’ve done that before. We’ve reprimanded them for it.” This indicated that a pattern of abuse by HR already existed and was not only known to the OIG, but had triggered corrective action by them.
That being the case, Joan expected that some action would be taken
regarding her claims. She was
wrong. In due time a letter arrived from
the OIG, that informed her that the “alleged actions do not appear to violate
any law regulation or policy and no OIG action is warranted.” The "alleged actions" included
attempting to put Joan on leave without pay and fire her without cause or due
process. Here are the relevant documents:
As this was happening, HR -- unable to let Joan's defiance pass unpunished -- produced a low-ranking statement for her (later determined to be fraudulent) from that year's promotion panel -- criticizing her work in establishing the Congressional Liaison Offices. A project that Colin Powell was contemporaneously regularly citing in public and private discussions of improvements he was making at State -- and for which Joan had won awards and praise from both State and Congress. The low-ranking statement was so clumsy that it appeared to have been written by people who had not bothered to read her file. For example, one of the criticisms of Joan's time on loan to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was that she had not used her foreign language skills while there. Huh? What's that again?
While it was true that Joan communicated with Senators and their staffs only in English, she had by then demonstrated excellence in three foreign languages (Russian, French and Portuguese) in three different countries.
This was Joan's earliest taste of HR's predilection for falsifying documents, but it would not be her last.
Joan and the OIG: Round #2
Fast forward three years to 2006, where HR continued its abuse. By then she had been to Iraq twice and had served as the first advisor on the Iraqi economy to the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. During that time she had become convinced that HR was tampering with her files -- deliberately “losing" key documents while fraudulently manufacturing others, as well as removing her from promotion lists.
She filed several grievances, which resulted in the Foreign Service Grievance Board ordering HR to reconstitute six promotion boards for her. The results of those boards -- Joan was ranked at or near the bottom -- coupled with witness testimony that this in fact was not the case, as well as multiple serious and inexplicable irregularities in the final board reports -- led Joan to conclude that HR had falsified the promotion board results. (Four years later the Foreign Service Grievance Board held that there were so many flaws in the six board reports as to render them invalid.)
Armed with this evidence, Joan met with then-Inspector General Howard “Cookie” Krongard. Krongard -- a political appointee -- heard Joan’s story and told her that the “OIG did not investigate that sort of thing.” Nor did the OIG respond to a letter from the Chairman of State’s House oversight committee -- Henry Hyde -- also asking Krongard to look into Joan’s allegations (it was Hyde‘s second letter to State on Joan‘s behalf -- he had previously written to the Director General George Staples). But -- once again -- nothing happened. State stonewalled again.
Although Krongard was eventually forced out of his position by Congress for refusing to investigate a broad range of problems, OIG career staff -- whether on Krongard’s orders or at their own initiative -- refused to look into Joan’s case. The Assistant Inspector General for Investigations at the time, John DeDona (with whom Joan also met), determined that “her concerns did not warrant an OIG investigation.”
Instead, DeDona suggested that Joan take her problem to the Office of Civil Rights. A particularly odd suggestion, considering that Joan has never in eight years of litigation made any reference to EEO matters -- always maintaining that her claims revolved around HR corruption, not gender discrimination. Here are the relevant documents: Download OIG2
Joan and the OIG: Round #3
Despite all this, Joan went along, became an office director and earned recognition for her work on Africa.
It seems, however, that once HR takes a dislike to an employee, it never lets up. It pursued Joan’s grievance with a vengeance -- mindlessly filing mountains of meaningless motions guaranteed to slow the process and cost her money (in fact, one of Joan's attorneys later wrote to the Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy and Acting Inspector General Harry Geisel that "HR's current frenzied pursuit of Ms. Wadelton through the grievance process is unmatched by anything my firm has seen in 30 years").
By 2008, Joan had again had enough of HR’s relentless efforts to fire her, so she contacted Kennedy and Geisel -- both of whom she had served with in previous assignments. In a memo to them, she laid out her predicament in detail -- that HR was trying to force her out based on fraudulent evidence and that corruption in HR went well beyond her case. In response, Geisel ordered that OIG investigators contact Joan.
So far, so good.She met with the investigators, setting out her evidence. She also informed them that HR was actively obstructing the Office of Special Counsel's investigation into her case -- instead HR was actively pushing to be allowed to “investigate itself.”
She ignored DeDona’s advice -- which she later learned was what the OIG told minority and female complainants in an effort to dispose of their claims. Instead, Joan’s lawyers wrote to the OIG, detailing its responsibilities to investigate exactly this sort of complaint -- to no avail. I described the abortive Office of Special Counsel investigation on July 23, 2012.
The OSC investigators promised to take a look and get back to Joan. Initial results were promising -- the investigators discovered what was already widely known inside the career Service -- that HR kept no records of the Foreign Service promotion process. That meant that -- outside of board members themselves -- no one beyond HR management knew what decisions promotion boards had actually made.
But then things became even stranger along Alice and the White Rabbit lines. The investigators asked Joan to come for a second meeting, where they informed her that they had done all the investigating they were going to do -- which did not include reviewing her documentary evidence, and dismissing compelling witness testimony. Instead, they had discussed her allegations with the very people in HR whom she was accusing of wrongdoing.
Not surprisingly, those HR officials denied all charges, saying that the problem was entirely with Joan -- who, they claimed, had unspecified “personality issues.” (As in the old Soviet Union and perhaps also the new Russia, where dissidents were/are locked up in psychiatric facilities, US whistleblowers are frequently accused of mental instability.)
HR officials also insisted to the OIG that -- while Joan's three annual performance reviews in question were glowing endorsements of her work, containing unequivocal recommendations for her promotion from senior US officials – they contained "code words" although never specified - designed to let promotion boards know that she should not in fact be promoted for creating the Congressional liaison offices, performing heroically as one of the first State Department officials in Iraq, and helping manage the new and complex economic relationship with Iraq while working for an Under Secretary of State.
The advice of the OIG investigators to Joan? “Ms. Wadelton, if you keep this up, people will say that you’re just a crazy old broad that doesn’t want to retire.” A statement that in and of itself violates federal EEO law, and is, to say the least, defamatory.
Underwhelmed by this approach, Joan contacted Ronald Koch, the Special Agent in Charge, elaborating his staff's failure to get the job done. Despite this, Koch assured her that “my office is conducting a thorough, professional investigation.” What that thoroughness and professionalism consisted of was never made clear.
Unwilling to let this pass without a challenge, Joan’s lawyers detailed their objections in a letter to Kennedy and Geisel. While OIG staff might have asserted that Joan was “crazy" because the HR officials under investigation had told them so, Kennedy and Geisel should have been given pause when one of Washington’s leading employment law firms weighed in. Kennedy promised a response -- which never came. The relevant documents are here: Download OIG3
Everyone Wants a Real IG at State -- Except State
So what to make of this? As I have previously written, it’s not just Joan who has had these issues with HR, and the lack of an effective Inspector General operating independently to investigate and correct them, is a substantial part of the problem.
Any hope that the State OIG might take allegations of corruption in HR seriously was dispensed with in 2010 with the publication of an OIG report on the promotion process in the Foreign Service. After an executive summary that declared all was well, deep in the report is a notation that -- just as Joan and others have claimed for years -- members of promotion boards told investigators that final published promotion lists were “at variance” with the candidate rankings the boards had reached. And the most obvious way I can think that would happen would be if HR were altering the lists.
What did the OIG do with this report's information by way of correcting problems it had uncovered in HR? Nothing.
The most recent confirmed occupant of the IG position -- Cookie Krongard -- was removed from office during the Bush Administration, after a couple of disastrous appearances before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The Obama Administration’s failure to appoint an independent Inspector General at State has provoked widespread criticism.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) -- a leading NGO that tracks whistleblower complaints -- has been pressing for a competent, independent IG at State for years. In January 2012 testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a POGO investigator noted:
"Perhaps most concerning, as an Ambassador, Geisel fits into a troubling pattern at the State IG office in which officials with Foreign Service backgrounds serve as Acting IG. Concerns involving that pattern have been analyzed in a number of GAO reports and were raised at a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing. Regardless of whether Geisel's background actually makes him too close to management, there is no doubt that perception exists in the State Department -- countless whistleblowers have come to POGO expressing concerns that they did not trust the State IG. That perception, regardless of fact, can have a devastating impact on the ability of an IG office to be successful because whistleblowers are such a critical source of information."
The Washington Post periodically makes the same point on its editorial page, calling for a permanent, non-career Inspector General to be appointed at State. In a January 2012 editorial, The Post wrote:
"The State Department position has not been filled with a confirmed chief for nearly five years. It is occupied in an acting capacity by a career foreign service employee. The IG's office came under attack last year for allegedly shoddy audits of overseas operations. The State Department's increasing role in Iraq in the aftermath of the military's withdrawal calls for filling this position quickly with a tough-minded and qualified individual."
See the January 2012 POGO Congressional testimony and The Washington Post editorial here: Download OIG4
Thoughts for a New Administration
The next Administration will have the perfect opportunity to clean up the mess that HR has become over the last decade or two. No new Secretary of State should want a personnel division run by people accused of corrupt -- indeed criminal -- practices. So the first task is to ensure that the new Secretary -- through his or her transition team -- knows that this needs to be fixed.
But then what? How can the current HR senior staff stay in place? The answer is that they can't. And, no it's not the junior HR staff. They should not be held responsible. It's the people who have been in charge for years and they are at the senior levels.
Moreover, are the attorneys in State’s Office of the Legal Advisor who defend HR in Joan’s and other matters any less culpable? It is hard to believe that they don't know that the facts of this case warrant its dismissal. Yet they have aggressively obstructed an outside investigation into Joan's claims. And -- if it can be demonstrated that they have knowingly submitted fraudulent documents (such as those score sheets alleged to have been produced by boards reviewing her in 2011) into evidence in a federal court case -- they should be put out of the building immediately.
In addition, part of the current problem is the seemingly eternal presence of various senior HR insiders -- whether in HR itself or on committees that decide awards, assign prestigious positions, grant civil service Senior Executive Service (SES) status and more. Those insiders should be shown the door, and regulations barring such longevity in key positions should be crafted so that no one individual or group amasses such power over key State Department functions.
Then who comes in? Can anyone from State can be trusted with the clean-up. I doubt it. As a consequence, neutral and personnel savvy people from the outside -- the Office of Personnel Management or the Government Accountability Office, for instance -- should be brought into senior HR positions for a couple of years to identify flaws in both the Foreign and Civil Service systems, to pin-point individual problem staff and to make recommendations to keep this from happening again.
Then an independent body should be established -- with Congressional oversight and input from OPM -- to institute procedures and safeguards to keep the system from running amok again. An outside board -- of senior personnel specialists from the corporate world, other government agencies, Congress and perhaps academia -- should be able to hear employee complaints and respond to them with measures to keep the Department's personnel operations corruption-free.
Finally, it may be weaknesses that derive from the Foreign Service Act of 1980 that have allowed this corruption to flourish. A review of the Act to identify the need for changes should be undertaken. Nothing should be left off the table when righting a failed system that abuses its own human capital to our own country's detriment.