New personnel boss takes office during difficult time for federal employees


Transportation Security Administration agents walk on the departures level a day after a shooting that killed one TSA worker and injured several others at Los Angeles International Airport. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Joe Davidson
Columnist November 5, 2013

It’s been more than six months, but the Office of Personnel Management finally has a new director. Katherine Archuleta was sworn in Monday as the agency’s 10th director.

She does not take office at an easy time.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“OPM touches so many lives and has such a significant impact on government service,” she said in a news release. “I look forward to getting to know the many dedicated, hard-working men and women, who serve the public every day.”

Those men and women have taken a beating this year. Archuleta has to deal with morale problems in a workforce that has experienced a two-year freeze on basic pay rates, which was extended to a third; sequester budget cuts that led to unpaid leave days for many federal workers; and the recent government shutdown, which held up salaries for more than two weeks and forced hundreds of thousands of workers off the job.

Given the recent shootings of federal employees at Los Angeles International Airport and Washington’s Navy Yard, workplace safety might find a prominent place on her agenda, as should improving retirement processing and the security clearance background checks that were the subject of a recent congressional hearing.

“As an educator, a public administrator, and a community leader, I know the value of bringing together talented people with diverse ideas and perspectives to improve any organization, and the Federal government is no exception,” Archuleta, the first Hispanic to be federal personnel chief, said in the news release. “The complex and important work of government requires a diverse and inclusive workforce that is representative of the many important perspectives, talents, and backgrounds of our great Nation. I am committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce to serve the American people.”

That emphasis on diversity is needed, particularly in the area of Hispanic employment at the top levels of government. Hispanics made up only 4.1 percent of the federal Senior Executive Service in fiscal 2012, unchanged from the year before, according to an OPM report released in September.

While that level was flat, Hispanic hiring into the top civil service echelon declined significantly.

“Hispanic new hires in the Senior Executive Service (SES) decreased from 5.4 percent in FY 2011 to 2.0 percent in FY 2012,” the report said.

Archuleta was sworn in by acting OPM director Elaine Kaplan, who took over the agency after John Berry’s term expired in April. Berry is now U.S. ambassador to Australia. Kaplan will soon be a judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

From the crime blotter

Add Lindsay Branson III to the list of security clearance background examiners who have been convicted of cheating on the job.

Branson, 58, of Silver Spring, was sentenced Tuesday to six months in prison. In July, he pleaded guilty to submitting false reports regarding background investigations he conducted. He was employed by OPM’s Federal Investigative Services.

Since 2008, 17 other background investigators and two record-checkers have been convicted on charges lodged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

“Between September 2010 and November 2011, in multiple Reports of Investigations on background investigations, Branson represented that he had interviewed a source or reviewed a record regarding the subject of the background investigation,” said a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “In fact, he had not conducted the interviews or obtained the records of interest.”

Because of that, numerous background investigations had to be reworked at a cost to the government of almost $160,000, which Branson will have to repay. He also will have to perform 200 hours of community service during three years of supervision after his six months of incarceration.

The quality of background investigations, many of which are done by federal contractors overseen by OPM, has been the subject of increased scrutiny this year. Edward Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents, and Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard before being shot dead by police, were government contractors with security clearances. Their background investigations were done by USIS, a private company.

In another, unrelated criminal case involving former federal employees, Jonathan M. Hargett, a former civilian employee of the Defense Department, was indicted last week on charges that he fraudulently collected more than $2.2 million in federal health-care benefits.

Hargett, 41, is in Germany, where he worked for the Defense Department from 1996 to 2012. He could not be reached for comment.

The indictment, according to a Justice Department news release, charges that Hargett “carried out a scheme to submit fraudulent claims and invoices” to the Foreign Service Benefit Plan and the Veterans Affairs Foreign Medical Program from January 2007 through April 2012.

“The claims falsely represented that he bought prescription medications and other pharmaceutical items from a pharmacy in Germany,” the department’s statement said. “They also falsely represented that he had received and paid for various health care items and services from a doctor in Germany.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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