John MacKinnon drove to work Wednesday in his car with government plates. He left his home west of Boston and headed downtown to his job as a group supervisor with Homeland Security Investigations. It was his first day on the job during the government’s partial shutdown. He’ll eventually be paid, but there’s no guarantee when.
On Wednesday he also flew to Washington to receive a Service to America Medal.
“It’s black tie, so we all rented tuxedos,” MacKinnon cracked in his Boston accent, as if hard to picture himself in one. His cybercrimes team of three special agents and an intelligence research specialist received the award Thursday night for Operation Holitna, their effort to arrest child pornographers. They work on the 7th floor of a federal building on Causeway Street, near the tracks that pull into Boston’s North Station.
“My three guys are very blue collar,” MacKinnon said. “So this is going to be Duck Dynasty meets Jason Bourne.”
His colleagues are Andrew Kelleher, Peter Manning, Gregory Squire and research specialist Ann Pombriant.
The annual awards dinner, hosted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, takes place every fall. Its venue is the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, whose colonnades face the Mall and stack neatly in line with the White House and the U.S. Treasury a block away. The night is a Cinderella moment for those honored federal workers.
Except this year has been different. Of the nine honorees, four were notified this week that they have been furloughed. The others, like MacKinnon, are working without pay.
“There’s an unfortunate irony here,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership.
MacKinnon was around for the last government shutdown, in 1995, and worked without pay then too. But now, at 52, he has a family — a 10-year-old son, a 14-year-old daughter and a wife who’s a social worker and substitute teacher. They wrote a note to pull the kids out of school so they could see their dad receive his award and experience Washington for the first time.
But the shutdown had shuttered the doors of the Smithsonian museums and cordoned off every national monument.
“They’re disappointed they can’t go inside,” MacKinnon said. “The plan still is to see what we can see.”
“The spy museum. The cupcake place.”
Thursday evening, MacKinnon donned his tuxedo and he and his family climbed the grand stairs to the Mellon Auditorium, where tables were covered with autumn-colored linen and the room was bathed in soft blue light.
“When we set the date for this event almost a year ago, it never occurred to us that our government would be shut down,” Stier said, in his opening remarks at the dinner. “This is an abysmal way to run our government and real harm is being done.”
Lawmakers were in the room, listening and dining on the grilled flatiron steak.
More than 800,000 workers have been furloughed. Even in MacKinnon’s office, the support staff has been sent home, with no guarantee that they will recover their lost pay. His core team, at least, continues to work and will be paid when Congress passes a bill and it is signed by President Obama to approve federal funding.
MacKinnon and his team were elated about winning the award, although he noted that “they’ve never really sought anything but more resources.”
They were, however, looking forward to meeting Rand Beers, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who presented the team’s award. They had never met the boss before.
MacKinnon’s children just know that their father catches bad guys who harm children. They don’t know that his team made 54 arrests in the past two years or about the kinds of videos, photos and chat rooms that are a key part of their work.
His son, dressed that night in a small rental tux and clutching a top hat, wants to be a crime fighter, too.
Up on stage, MacKinnon spoke on behalf of his team.
“It’s a calling. Not just a career, but a call to service,” he said, with his team alongside him. “We are just doing our job, and really, really believing in the mission.”
In front of him were the faces of Washington. And then beyond them was the city itself, quiet and dark on an October night.
At some point, when light again outside, MacKinnon planned to walk to the fringe of his favorite building in town, the Capitol.
“Every time I go to Washington,” he said, “I just have to stare at it.”
For more stories about the Service to America Medals, including a photo gallery of the winners and finalists, go to washingtonpost.com/leadership.