By William Wiley

Ah, the innocence of youth. Magical beings enter your home and leave gifts, mom and dad are asexual, and our political leaders are making rational decisions based on a careful assessment of the evidence and argument. Sadly, as adults, we find out that real life is a little different.

Let’s take a recent case in point. First, I want to establish that I am not taking a position on who is right and who is wrong in this case; i.e., were the whistleblowers mistreated and the civil service abused by these agency managers. The point of this piece is to point out that how Congress (and the media) reacts to things may not actually be warranted given all the facts.

Here are the high points (or low points, depending on your point of view) from a recent series of articles about the “downfall” of top agency officials at a large federal agency. Based on both facts and allegations in the media, we read:

  • Awards:  One specific top agency official received a $10,000 bonus (more or less) on nine occasions in about a one-year period. That’s an additional $90,000 above his annual salary of about $180,000.
  • Reassignments:  That same top official allegedly forced transfers to punish agency employees who spoke out about security lapses and agency mismanagement.
  • Demotions:  After reporting security violations, an agency employee had his pay reduced two grades.

Here at FELTG, we may not know anything more than what we read in the papers, but we do claim a fair amount of knowledge regarding civil service law. With that in mind, here’s how the above three allegations look to us:

  • Awards:  Employees don’t award themselves. Awards almost always are recommended by the employee’s supervisor and then approved at some higher management level. I don’t think it’s even possible for an employee to refuse an award. At least, I’ve never seen it happen. So why fault the “top agency official” who was on the receiving end of a bunch of suspicious cash awards? Shouldn’t somebody be looking into whoever it was that recommended and approved the awards instead? I can’t tell if the “top agency official” is a good guy or a bad guy, but I can sure tell that he is not able to award himself.
  • Reassignments:  Employees who speak out on matters regarding security lapses and gross mismanagement are legally defined as “whistleblowers.” It is illegal to transfer most any federal employee in reprisal for that person blowing the whistle.  Most every federal agency provides annual mandatory training regarding this right. To stop an improper transfer, all the employee has to do is call (800) 872-9855, describe a situation that is possibly whistleblower reprisal (not prove that it actually is, but just that it might be), and the Office of Special Counsel is empowered to intervene to obtain a stay of the transfer. Therefore, if there actually was an improper transfer, either the employee did not call the toll-free number, or he could not convince OSC that he was possibly the victim of reprisal.
  • Demotions:  Most federal employees have the right to challenge a demotion by filing an appeal with MSPB. Those few who are excluded from MSPB’s jurisdiction have the right to challenge demotions through an internal neutral review process involving several management officials. Employees are routinely notified of these rights at the time the demotion is implemented. Therefore, if there actually was an improper demotion, it was either approved by several agency officials – the majority of whom must have been bad people – or upheld by the bad MSPB, or the demotion was not challenged.

Once more, here at FELTG we are not taking a position on who is right and who is wrong in this scenario. It is even possible that these employees hold some sort of unique appointments in an unusual agency and that one or more of these analyses are off the mark. However, the odds are that we’ve correctly described the “real” facts. Hopefully, we’ve shown that there is a world of difference between reality and what our legislators choose to believe is bad about our civil service system. If there are truly mistreated employees in this scenario, our system has safeguards in place to protect them and undo the harm they have suffered. If there is fault in an employee receiving bonuses, the fault cannot be in the employee because those awards were approved by a higher authority.

Goodness knows we are quick to point out failings and shortcomings in our oversight systems. However, when others see failings where there are none, we have to speak to those, as well. We love our civil service, even though on occasion we disagree with those who oversee parts of it. Wiley@FELTG.com

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