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5 Things You Need to Know About Federal News From the Past Month

Changes in federal government keep coming fast. That’s why GovLoop gives you monthly recaps of federal news that may affect agency management and employment. If you’ve fallen behind, check out the previous recaps.

By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be new developments. Also, this roundup can’t include everything. The focus is on federal news most relevant to government employees. Check out the linked sources for more information to stay on top of the latest news in government.

Before we begin…

Even though these monthly summaries are about news affecting the work that happens inside agencies, there were a few headlines too big to ignore.

Pipe bombs were mailed to the Obamas, the Clintons, CNN offices, prominent Democrats and others. The Secret Service, FBI, U.S. Postal Service and other federal and local agencies responded swiftly. The packages were intercepted and no one was harmed. A suspect was arrested.

Trump ordered thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in anticipation of stopping a caravan of people slowly approaching from Central America. The caravan is approximately 1,000 miles from the border, and Newsweek reported that Defense Department “intelligence officials do not anticipate any terrorist infiltration and only limited involvement of criminal gangs.” Critics called the increase of troops a political stunt.

1. Intrigue at the Interior

The Interior Department and its head, Secretary Ryan Zinke, have been the focus of many headlines in the past month.

CNN reported Zinke left off or obscured meetings from his official calendar since his first day on the job, including meetings with lobbyists, special interest groups and corporate executives. These calendars are an important part of government transparency.

In a move that was characterized as “politically suspect” and “a very big deal,” Ben Carson sent an email announcing that Trump political appointee Suzanne Israel Tufts, who had been serving as assistant secretary for administration at the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), would replace Mary Kendall as acting inspector general of the Interior Department. Kendall was at that moment running multiple ongoing investigations of Zinke. Days later, after a lot of controversy, Tufts completely resigned from federal government, Kendall stayed in her role and the Interior said Carson’s announcement was “false information.”

Just hours later, the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (yes, the office led by Mary Kendall) issued a report finding that Zinke “violated his agency’s travel policy” and “breach[ed] the public trust” by spending $25,000 of taxpayer money on unnecessary security. Outside magazine called it a “no good, very bad week” for Zinke and the Interior.

Zinke is being investigated for several other alleged financial, ethical and job performance issues. The inspector general has referred one of its probes to the Justice Department for further investigation.

2. Staffing issues

The HuffPost reported that the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley, held hearings for a controversial set of Trump’s circuit and district court nominees while the Senate was in recess and most other committee members were unable to attend. Meanwhile, Trump nominated three conservative judges to the California seats on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, breaking with the normal process of consulting with “home state” senators about the nominees.

Terry James Albury, a former FBI agent who had earlier pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to a journalist, was sentenced to four years in prison. Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior advisor at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), was arrested for allegedly leaking “highly sensitive” financial files related to Paul Manafort to a media outlet.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced new direct hiring authorities, a policy designed to make it easier for federal agencies to fill jobs in certain hard-to-fill roles in STEM, IT and cybersecurity by skipping some civil service hiring requirements. The Washington Post reported the move has been “greeted with praise and doubts.” OPM also issued new guidance for agencies to “permanently maintain all entries to employees’ personnel records, rather than erasing or modifying them as part of a negotiated agreement.”

The Associated Press found that the U.S. Army “discharged more than 500 immigrant enlistees who were recruited across the globe for their language or medical skills and promised a fast track to citizenship in exchange for their service” in a one year period. Business Insider noted that, unlike his predecessors, Trump has not visited any American troops in a war zone.

After a New York Times investigation revealed the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation would be holding a “training academy” for newly hired law clerks to federal judges, the foundation said it would suspend the controversial program.

OPM released the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which measures govies’ job satisfaction and opinions about their workplace, leaders and agency. Federal News Network shared an interesting analysis of the report.

3. Agency issues

With the midterm elections fast approaching, an investigation by Vox revealed “frightening vulnerabilities at almost every level” of the U.S.’s election system. The Justice Department accused Russians of a campaign of “information warfare” to interfere in the midterm elections. At the end of October, the U.S. Cyber Command kicked off the “first known overseas cyber operation to protect American elections.”

A Homeland Security Department inspector general review found “a poorly coordinated interagency process” for dealing with Trump’s family separation policy, resulting in nearly 900 children being kept in cells longer than the court-imposed limit. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported a similar “cascade of problems” at agencies. The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) confirmed 14 children were in agency custody for months after being left off of lists used to track and process the children the U.S. government has separated from their families.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that federal agencies are part of a system that is granting Americans custody of some of the hundreds of children taken from their families at the border without notifying the children’s parents or their lawyers. Customs and Border Protection reports showed more than 500 of its employees were arrested in the last two years.

The White House rejected half of the judge candidates for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals after requiring them to reveal their party affiliation and other information about their personal political views. The VA refused to give Congress “documents related to accusations that outside businessmen are unduly influencing department policy.” Meanwhile, the VA is late in sending GI Bill benefit payments to more than 200,000 student veterans because of a software glitch. Other veterans are receiving less than they are owed.

The New York Times revealed that FEMA has spent billions of dollars in a “cycle of damage and repair” rebuilding structures more than once in areas repeatedly devastated by natural disasters.

Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, repeatedly engaged with racist and conspiracy-theorist social media content. A reporter for The Washington Post discovered David J. Thomas Sr., the deputy executive director of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, had a portrait of a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan hanging in his office for years. Thomas has since taken the painting down.

U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) was hacked, and the personal information of about 75,000 people was exposed in the data breach. The Interior Department inspector general discovered the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) computer networks were infected with Russian malware when an employee visited pornography websites. Also at Interior, a Bureau of Land Management manager sent sexually explicit messages to subordinates and spied on employees.

4. Departures

Nikki Haley resigned as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, news that Axios said “shocked a number of senior foreign policy officials in the Trump administration.” Haley’s announcement came one day after an ethics watchdog group accused her of accepting gifts of luxury private flights from business leaders.

The White House announced it was replacing Jeff Tien Han Pon as director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) after seven months on the job. The new OPM acting director is Margaret Weichart, who will also continue to serve as the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). No official explanation was given for Pon’s abrupt departure, but sources told GovExec that the Trump administration forced him out for resisting plans to “strip the agency of its independence.” GovExec reported that “senior aides to Pon were also removed from OPM, including his chief of staff and his confidential assistant.”

Josh Venable was replaced as chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Nate Bailey, who was serving as the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for communications and outreach, has taken on the role. No official explanation was given for Venable’s departure.

5. New hires

The Senate narrowly confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment as a U.S. Supreme Court justice following multiple accusations of sexual assault, nationwide protests and testimony before the Senate judiciary committee that Kavanaugh himself admitted was “too emotional” and others characterized as partisan and angry.

James Morhard was confirmed as deputy administrator of NASA despite having, as SpaceNews noted, “no experience in the space industry.” Previously, Morhard had been the deputy Senate sergeant at arms.

Karen Budd-Falen was hired as deputy solicitor for fish, wildlife, and parks at the Interior Department, despite being a “vocal opponent of federal lands policy.”

Eric Dreiband was narrowly confirmed as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department (DOJ) civil rights division. Civil rights advocates, as well as a previous head of the division, had opposed Dreiband’s nomination. Jeffrey Clark was also confirmed as assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s environment and natural resources division after acting in that role since Trump’s inauguration. During Senate hearings, Clark confirmed he believes climate change is “contestable.”

The Senate confirmed three members to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) — Adam Klein (chair), Edward Felten and Jane NitzeTechCrunch described PCLOB as a “little-known but important group that helps to ensure that intelligence agencies and executive branch policies are falling within the law.” PCLOB hasn’t been functional since 2016.

Daniel Smith was appointed as director of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) at the State Department. For the State Department, the Senate confirmed assistant secretaries Mary Elizabeth Taylor for legislative affairs, Denise Natali for conflict and stabilization operations and Kimberly Breier for Western hemisphere affairs, as well as John Cotton Richmond as director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) and human trafficking ambassador.

Also confirmed: For the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Peter Gaynor as deputy administrator; for the DOD, Robert McMahon as assistant secretary for sustainment and James Stewart as assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs; and ambassadors to Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Somalia and Suriname.

Over at United States Digital Service (USDS), Matt Cutts, a former Google executive, became administrator and Eddie Hartwig the deputy administrator. Both had been acting in their roles since 2017. Also on the gov tech side of things, Greg Garcia will become the Army’s new deputy chief information officer and Eileen Vidrine the Air Force’s chief data officer.

Note: This article is not an opinion about or endorsement of any policies, regulations or orders, nor of the behaviors of elected officials, political appointees, government employees, other individuals, organizations or agencies.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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