State Department quashed investigations into criminal wrongdoing

By CBS News

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Following up on the allegations in a story CBS News published last summer titled “State Department memo reveals possible cover-ups, halted investigations,” the State Department inspector general on Friday suggested that based on internal documents and interviews, the State Department quashed investigations into criminal wrongdoing.

The IG found that senior State Department officials contributed to the “appearance of undue influence and favoritism.”

For example, in the investigation into the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, the IG concluded that additional evidence could have been collected but the investigation was called off. Before the investigation was shut down, only one witness was interviewed, the ambassador was not interviewed and Diplomatic Security did not assign a case number to the case despite that being regular protocol.

The undersecretary of management told the IG that he decided to handle the ambassador investigation as a “management issue” instead of referring it to the IG or Diplomatic Security because there were “exceptional circumstances.” The undersecretary said those circumstances were that the ambassador lived overseas.

The IG concluded that the foreign affairs manual should be clarified and revised so that allegations of misconduct are handled “fairly, consistently and independently.”

Text of the original story, posted June 10, 2013:

CBS News has uncovered documents that show the State Department may have covered up allegations of illegal and inappropriate behavior within their ranks.

The Diplomatic Security Service, or the DSS, is the State Department’s security force, charged with protecting the secretary of state and U.S. ambassadors overseas and with investigating any cases of misconduct on the part of the 70,000 State Department employees worldwide.

CBS News’ John Miller reports that according to an internal State Department Inspector General’s memo, several recent investigations were influenced, manipulated, or simply called off. The memo obtained by CBS News cited eight specific examples. Among them: allegations that a State Department security official in Beirut “engaged in sexual assaults” on foreign nationals hired as embassy guards and the charge and that members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s security detail “engaged prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries” — a problem the report says was “endemic.”

The memo also reveals details about an “underground drug ring” was operating near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and supplied State Department security contractors with drugs.

Aurelia Fedenisn, a former investigator with the State Department’s internal watchdog agency, the Inspector General, told Miller, “We also uncovered several allegations of criminal wrongdoing in cases, some of which never became cases.”

In such cases, DSS agents told the Inspector General’s investigators that senior State Department officials told them to back off, a charge that Fedenisn says is “very” upsetting.

“We were very upset. We expect to see influence, but the degree to which that influence existed and how high up it went, was very disturbing,” she said.

In one specific and striking cover-up, State Department agents told the Inspector General they were told to stop investigating the case of a U.S. Ambassador who held a sensitive diplomatic post and was suspected of patronizing prostitutes in a public park.

The State Department Inspector General’s memo refers to the 2011 investigation into an ambassador who “routinely ditched … his protective security detai” and inspectors suspect this was in order to “solicit sexual favors from prostitutes.”

Sources told CBS News that after the allegations surfaced, the ambassador was called to Washington, D.C. to meet with Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, but was permitted to return to his post.

Fedenisn says “hostile intelligence services” allow such behavior to continue. “I would be very surprised if some of those entities were not aware of the activities,” she said. “So yes, it presents a serious risk to the United States government.”

A draft of the Inspector General’s report on the performance of the DSS, obtained by CBS News, states, “Hindering such cases calls into question the integrity of the investigative process, can result in counterintelligence vulnerabilities and can allow criminal behavior to continue.”

John Miller spoke with Mike Pohelitz, a retired Senior Agent at the DSS who was involved in one of the cases listed in the Inspector General’s memo. Pohelitz said he was told to stop investigating one of the cases and that the order likely came from the upper ranks of the DSS.

“I got the information through my DS channel,” he told Miller. “But it had to come from somebody higher than DS, I’m sure.”

According to Fedenisn, when a high-ranking State Department security officials was shown a draft of their findings that investigations were being interfered with by State Department higher-ups, he said, “This is going to kill us.” In the final report however, all references to specific cases had been removed.

“I mean my heart really went out to the agents in that office, because they really want to do the right thing, they want to investigate the cases fully, correctly, accurately … and they can’t,” Fedenisn said.

Fedenisn, a DSS agent for 26 years, was a part of the team that prepared the draft report and is now a whistleblower who has taken her concerns to Congress.

Two hours after CBS News made inquiries to the State Department about these charges, investigators from the State Department’s Inspector General showed up at her door.

Speaking at a press briefing Monday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said: “We hold all employees to the highest standards. We take allegations of misconduct seriously and we investigate thoroughly. All cases mentioned in the CBS report were thoroughly investigated or under investigation, and the — the department continues to take action. Finally, the department has responded to the recommendations in the OIG report regarding the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s of Investigations and counter-intelligence. Diplomatic Security has taken the further step of requesting additional review by outside experience law enforcement officers on top of the OIG inspection so that officers with law enforcement experience can make expert assessments about our current procedures.”

Psaki went on to say the “notion that we would not vigorously pursue criminal misconduct in a case, any case, is preposterous … ambassadors would be no exception.” Without speaking about specific cases, Psaki described any misconduct as “hardly endemic.”

A statement provided to CBS News by the Inspector General’s office said:

OIG does not comment on drafts of reports.

On its own initiative, OIG Office of Investigations has been conducting its own independent review of the allegations made. This is our standard procedure.

We staffed it independently and appropriately and they were people hired specific for this review at the end of 2012. They are on staff. We staffed it with the best people we can find at hand to do the job.

DS does not speak for us.

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Obama’s ‘Unpaid Bills’ Quip Disappears From Transcript

By Mary Bruce – ABC News

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President Obama’s unpaid bills have gone missing.

During a rare trip home to Chicago, Obama on Monday lamented the life he left behind. “One of the nice things about being home is actually that it’s a little bit like a time capsule,” he told supporters at a fundraiser.

“Because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills,” he joked. “I think eventually they got paid–but they’re sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff.”

The White House, however, left the president’s quip about his unpaid bills out of the official transcript.

According to the transcript, the president said “we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some–newspapers and all kinds of stuff.”

This morning, the White House issued an updated transcript, but it still didn’t mention the “unpaid bills.” Instead, it included an “inaudible” in that portion.

According to the White House, the omission was unintentional and the result of problem with the audio recording.

No word on what bills were left unpaid. “I did not have a chance to rummage through the desk of the president while he was home this week,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest jokingly told reporters.

The president has been talking a lot about his finances recently. Just last week, he explained how his credit card was rejected during a recent dinner out with the first lady.

“I was trying to explain to the waitress, ‘No, I really think that I’ve been paying my bills,’” he joked last Friday.

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Affordable Care Act on the ballot

By Las Vegas Review-Journal

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We interrupt coverage of the ISIS crisis and the Ebola emergency to remind voters of the biggest reason why President Barack Obama’s approval rating is plummeting and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is at risk of losing his job: the Affordable Care Act.

The midterm elections are two weeks out — early voting in Clark County began Saturday. And the president recently provided a moment of clarity that brought groans from Democrats on ballots everywhere. “I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that,” the president said. “But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”

None will have a greater impact on voters than Obamacare. The next enrollment period for Obamacare-compliant health insurance plans begins Nov. 15. It was supposed to begin Oct. 15, but last November, recognizing what a disaster the ACA was, the administration pushed enrollment until after the elections, hoping to minimize midterm damage.

But that didn’t stop people from learning about increases in premiums and deductibles, or that their plans would be part of another wave of cancellations for not being ACA-compliant.

As reported Friday by Jed Graham of Investor’s Business Daily, rates for the cheapest bronze plans in the biggest cities in 15 states and Washington, D.C., will jump an average of 13.9 percent for 40-year-old nonsmokers earning 225 percent of the poverty level ($26,260). Elsewhere, the jump is much higher for that demographic, including 22 percent here in Las Vegas, 27 percent in Los Angeles and an eye-popping 64 percent in Seattle. Conversely, some of the higher-level plans would see a slight decrease — 0.8 percent — but for those who can’t afford a bronze plan, a silver plan is completely out of the question, anyway.

The Review-Journal’s Jennifer Robison reported Sunday that in Nevada, small groups and individuals who still hold pre-ACA plans will take a bath, with premium increases of 50 percent or more. Many people will see a doubling of their premiums. Equally if not more problematic, Ms. Robison noted, is that the out-of-pocket expenses of deductibles and copays could soar as much as 200 percent.

Businesses are reacting to the reality of Obamacare, too. Because of the rising costs of ACA compliance, Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the country, announced earlier this month it was dropping coverage for 30,000 part-time workers.

Obamacare supporters rave about how great this legislation is, yet they’re pummeling Wal-Mart for allowing its part-time workers the opportunity to buy a health insurance policy on the federal or state exchanges. If Obamacare is so good, what’s the problem?

Or is the problem that it’s just not that good?

Obamacare is largely responsible for holding back economic growth and take-home pay, preventing people from earning more and keeping more of what they earn. The only way to fix that is to radically scale back or completely repeal Obamacare.

It’s definitely on the ballot. Vote accordingly.

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Thousands of federal workers on extended paid leave

By Lisa Rein – The Washington Post
Tens of thousands of federal workers are being kept on paid leave for at least a month — and often for longer stretches that can reach a year or more — while they wait to be punished for misbehavior or cleared and allowed to return to work, government records show.

During a three-year period that ended last fall, more than 57,000 employees were sent home for a month or longer. The tab for these workers exceeded $775 million in salary alone.

The extensive use of administrative leave continues despite government personnel rules that limit paid leave for employees facing discipline to “rare circumstances” in which the employee is considered a threat. The long-standing rules were written in an effort to curb waste and deal quickly with workers accused of misconduct.

And the comptroller general, the top federal official responsible for auditing government finances and practices, has repeatedly ruled that federal workers should not be sidelined for long periods for any reason.

But a report by the Government Accountability Office, first made public by The Washington Post on its Web site Monday, found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013. About 4,000 were idled for three months to a year and several hundred for one to three years. This is the first time the government has calculated the scope and cost of administrative leave.

Auditors found that supervisors used wide discretion in putting employees on leave, including for alleged violations of ­government rules and laws, whistleblowing, doubts about trust­worthiness, and disputes with colleagues or bosses. Some employees remain on paid leave while they challenge demotions and other punishments.

While the employees stayed home, they not only collected paychecks but also built their pensions, vacation and sick days and moved up the federal pay scale.

“Six months went by, and we didn’t hear anything,” said Scott Balovich, who was put on administrative leave from his IT systems job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Alaska. “You’re so anxious. You don’t know if you’ve got a job. You’re getting paid, but it’s no vacation.”

Balovich, who makes $108,000 a year, was paid not to work while investigators examined how pornographic images had gotten onto his computer hard drive. He ultimately was cleared of any personal involvement and returned to his job last week. His attorney, Debra D’Agostino, a founder of the Federal Practice Group, said he “got stuck in the inertia of bureaucracy.”

The GAO report almost certainly understates the extent and cost of administrative leave because the figures examined by the auditors were incomplete. The numbers reviewed account for only about three-fifths of the federal workforce since not all government agencies keep track of the practice.

The Office of Personnel Management rule book lists dozens of reasons for allowing paid leave, such as donating an organ, house-hunting before a job transfer and attending the funeral of a relative in the military. Snow days also are permitted.

But these require only a few hours or days — not the months and years that the GAO discovered are common at more than 100 federal agencies.

“It’s not authorized by any law,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), referring to the cases that drag on. “Bureaucrats are abusing it.”

Grassley, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, requested the GAO report. Grassley is working with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) on legislation that would narrowly define the circumstances in which employees can be kept home. Pay would be limited to a few days, congressional aides said.

OPM regulations, which govern personnel practices across the government, say an employee faced with a proposed disciplinary action “will remain in a duty status” except in “rare circumstances” when he or she poses a threat to himself or others, is at risk of stealing government property or jeopardizes “legitimate government interests.” That rule, which dates to 1980, was adopted on the heels of the last major shake-up of the federal civil service as part of a push to curb waste and fraud and make agencies more accountable to taxpayers.

Even earlier than that, the comptroller general began to make clear that extended paid leave was not appropriate. As long ago as 1958, for instance, the comptroller general said that an employee under investigation for wrongdoing “may be relieved from duty and continued in a pay status for 24 hours or so.” That was the first of a dozen such rulings issued by the comptroller general since then.

At many private companies, paid leave is rarely used, if at all, and lasts a few days at most, personnel experts said. An employee accused of wrongdoing either stays at the office and is reassigned or is suspended without pay.

“The private sector is focused on operating efficiently,” said Kathy Albarado, chief executive of Helios HR, a consulting firm based in Northern Virginia. Many of Helios’s clients are government contractors that cannot bill the government for salaries if employees are on paid leave. “So they’re motivated to ensure they’re resolving any dispute quickly,” Albarado said.

Shortly before Balovich went back to work at NOAA, the agency official in charge of his case apologized in an e-mail for keeping him at home so long. “I agree that the process has been way, way too lengthy,” Jim Balsiger, the regional administrator for NOAA fisheries in Alaska, wrote to him, saying the case had to be processed through various government offices.

Balsiger’s deputy, Doug Mecum, said in an interview: “We weren’t in control of the timeline. People and players above us were in control.”

A NOAA spokesman, citing privacy laws, declined to comment on the specifics of Balovich’s case.

In another case, a former acting inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security was put on paid leave in April while he was investigated for allegedly misusing his office and soft-pedaling reports about misbehavior by Secret Service agents. Before he was sent home, Charles Edwards resigned his post and transferred to a different job in the department.

DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron confirmed that Edwards remains on leave but declined to say how long it will last. Edwards did not respond to a telephone message left at his home seeking comment.

“Unless you think somebody is going to get a gun and shoot people, then send them to work,” said Jeffrey Neal, a longtime federal personnel manager who retired in 2011 as the DHS human capital chief. “If they’re sitting there, you’re going to be reminded, ‘We have to do something about Betty Lou.’ ”

There is no law addressing administrative leave. Brenda Roberts, OPM deputy associate director for pay and leave, said agencies have used their own discretion in putting workers on paid leave.

The OPM has at times given guidance to managers across government on how it should be used, she said, adding that “we’ve always stated it’s for brief periods of time.”

Spokesmen for several agencies, when asked why they sidelined hundreds or thousands of employees for long periods, said they rely on the OPM for guidance.

“Administrative leave . . . is generally limited to special situations involving brief absences,” Defense Department spokesman Nathan Christensen said in a statement. It “may, in limited circumstances, be granted on an extended basis for situations such as security clearance reviews, or other due process situations where such leave is deemed to be in the interest of the Department.”

The GAO found that the Defense Department put about 8,600 employees on leave for one to three months, nearly 900 for three months to a year and 123 for more than a year.

In a move rare for federal agencies, the Justice Department has taken steps to rein in the use of administrative leave, limiting it to 10 workdays unless the assistant attorney general for administration approves a longer period.

“It became very clear to us that managers were putting people on administrative leave because it was the easiest thing to do,” said Robert Diegelman, who wrote the policy in 2002, when he was a high-level official at the Justice Department. “Too often it went on forever.”

That’s how it seemed for Hayley Dikeman, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Tulsa who was sent home for six months after she disagreed repeatedly with an environmental decision by the agency and argued with her supervisors. She said she was upset that the agency had allowed a company in Oklahoma to lay a utility line without first studying how it might affect the habitat of an endangered beetle.

The biologist said she questioned the agency’s integrity and accused it of giving industry special treatment. Agency officials said she exhibited “disrespectful” behavior toward her supervisors, she recalled. She was suspended without pay before being put on paid leave. “They just didn’t want to deal with her,” said her attorney, Debra Roth.

Claiming she was a whistleblower, Dikeman took her case to the Office of Special Counsel, which began investigating whether she had suffered from retaliation. She said that a separate internal investigation found in her favor and that she is now back at work.

Jessica Kershaw, spokeswoman for the Interior Department, Fish and Wildlife’s parent agency, said in a statement that it had “completed its review and made recommendations for appropriate disciplinary and corrective actions. Because these recommendations are subject to further review and negotiations of a privileged nature, we are unable to comment further.”

Roth, who is general counsel for the Senior Executives Association, which represents 7,000 government executives, said the OPM is partly responsible for the abuses of administrative leave.

The “OPM has turned a blind eye to this, and it’s shameful,” she said. “There’s no sense of urgency.”

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