GAO finds fault with some Bush `burrowers'

Federal Workers

March 30, 2007|By Melissa Harris

As President Bush's tenure in the White House begins to wind down, political appointees looking to stick around have to hunt for a long-term job in the civil service.

So-called "burrowing" - either for the benefits or the job satisfaction - happens under every administration.

Often, it is done fairly. Someone wins a plum political appointment because of outstanding qualifications and then moves to a long-term position.

But for a small number, positions are created with an appointee in mind, while veterans or more qualified applicants are passed over, according to a Government Accountability Office review of conversions from May 2001 to August 2005.

During that period, the GAO found that 144 appointees had burrowed into the civil service. It raised concerns about 18 of those conversions and said that it could not reach a verdict on 19 others because of a lack of documentation.

Nine of the 18 cases flagged by the GAO occurred at the Department of Health and Human Services. For instance, the confidential assistant to then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was moved into a career position of "policy coordinator" for the agency in 2002. The assistant had served as a policy analyst for Thompson while he was governor of Wisconsin.

When the job was posted, 53 people applied.

In its review, the GAO found that "the selecting official" was the "selectee's supervisor at the time" and that the duties of the two positions overlapped "substantially," "giving the appearance that the agency may have tailored qualifications" to improve the confidential assistant's prospects.

"Although the selectee received the highest score, there is no documentation explaining how the score was assigned, or who assigned it," according to the GAO report.

While the practice draws little attention outside government, it raises concerns among career employees over trust and communication, said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

"It really can taint the civil service as a whole," she said. "Very often, when a new administration comes in, some new appointees look with suspicion at the civil service and say, `Well, they're just the handmaidens of the last administration. We don't trust them.' To a degree, when you have a political [appointee] from the last administration in there at a high level, they will be right."

The Office of Personnel Management, which handles human resources issues for the federal government, must approve all conversions during a roughly nine-month period around a presidential election.

And in 1993, OPM took the unusual step of recommending that two Interior Department burrowers from the George H.W. Bush administration should be fired because their jobs were created for them, according to a 1993 Washington Post article.

In comparison, Kevin Mahoney of OPM said that his department's review of the 18 most recent cases did not uncover any "systemic" problems.

Mahoney, who ensures the government's merit systems are followed, said that his staff found no evidence of "anything malicious" and that in some cases, the culprit was a paperwork error in an agency's human resources department.

"We found that in the competitions that took place, if we re-created them from the perspective of all of the candidates that applied, in most cases, the candidate hired was still the best for the job," Mahoney said.

Bonosaro said that while OPM review of election-year conversions and GAO audits is important, another critical check is absent. Rank-and-file civil servants moving into the career Senior Executive Service must have their qualifications certified by an independent board.

"If appointees parlay their political experience, which they got without a qualification review, into a high-level job, they have sidestepped the process," she said.

Social Security

A longtime political appointee who oversaw the first wave of reforms to the nation's disability system is no longer employed by the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, agency spokesman Mark Lassiter said this week.

Lassiter declined to say whether Martin Gerry, who also served under Presidents Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush, resigned or was fired from his post. A spokesman for the agency's inspector general also declined to comment. A call to what is believed to be Gerry's Ellicott City home was not returned.

Gerry's departure, however, comes as new Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue contemplates the agency's current strategy for streamlining the disability process - reforms that were a legacy of former Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart.

Barnhart was known for draping a 25-foot flow chart in front of officials that depicted all of the steps applicants must go through to obtain benefits.

Although Astrue has told Congress that he stands firmly behind Barnhart's goal of reducing the red tape and heaps of appeals from denied applicants, he has not committed to Barnhart's solution, which began in the New England region last year.

"I'm trying to avoid a lot of specific promises," Astrue told Congress last month. "But one of the things I can tell you is we're not going to assume that this is the package and roll it out one or two regions a year for the next five to seven years. We're not going to do that."

The writer can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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