By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Two powerful employee organizations are pressing the Bush administration to prove that in its final weeks, political aides are not improperly winning career government jobs at the expense of more qualified workers.
Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of federal workers, and the Senior Executives Association, the group representing federal executives, said they want the government to release lists of political appointees who have been hired for career jobs and show whether agencies sought competition for the positions.
The two groups said they are pressing the Office of Personnel Management for this information because they are concerned the agency is not carefully overseeing last-minute hires of political aides. They point to recent reports in The Washington Post and other evidence suggesting political aides are leaping over qualified candidates or avoiding competition as they "burrow" into the civil workforce.
"The recent Post articles raise the possibility that political candidates are being placed in Senior Executive positions for which they may be unqualified or less qualified than other candidates, or that their service as political appointees was given undue weight," SEA President Carol Bonosaro and general counsel William L. Bransford wrote to the OPM. Such favoritism "is a disservice to those Senior Executives who were selected purely for merit without political assistance."
The OPM reviews the hiring by most government agencies of political appointees into permanent career posts from March until Inauguration Day. Hires made within this time frame are viewed with some suspicion by federal employee unions because they cover a period when many loyal political aides face losing their jobs and may be searching for more secure positions.
OPM Associate Director Kevin Mahoney declined last week to provide The Post with a list of political appointees his agency had approved to be moved into career jobs from March to Nov. 3. Though such hires and job titles are public, Mahoney said it was not the "general practice" of the OPM to release them. The White House did not respond to a request for the same information.
In one case The Post found, the Drug Enforcement Administration director hired a political aide to a career Senior Executive Service job -- the highest rank in federal service -- about a year after the same candidate was rejected as unqualified for a lower-level position. The Justice Department initially raised concerns about the DEA's plans to hire the employee with no competition. The DEA advertised the job for two weeks starting Oct. 26 and announced its selection Nov. 13.
Bonosaro and Bransford said veterans know that jobs can be tailored for political friends and competition can be manufactured on paper by limiting the qualifications that will be considered, advertising the job briefly and narrowly defining duties. Political influence and pressure help clinch an unfair hiring selection, they said.
"I think OPM has just turned their back on their obligation," said John Gage, president of AFGE. "If OPM would do its job, they could make sure there weren't any musical chairs to land political people in SES and other positions."
Gage said he is disturbed by reports from members that the OPM has not warned agencies this year to avoid moving around senior executives in the final months of the administration in an effort to avoid the appearance of political influence. Gage said such warnings have gone out in past turnovers, most notably during the exit of the Carter administration, when there was a freeze on such moves.
"The prevailing thought that this kind of thing happens in every administration is just not good enough for me," he said of burrowing. "It has to stop."