The order was issued on a Tuesday, orphaned by Wednesday and rescinded by Friday, but in its brief life it stirred up suspicion and paranoia in an Education Department office facing a reduction-in-force.
Intended or not, the unusual order contained an implication that infuriated some staffers in the Office of Indian Education Programs: that their attendance at an acrimonious congressional hearing on the RIF was being noted and that it might be used against them.
Those who went to Capitol Hill Aug. 2 were asked, immediately upon their return, to produce the paper work showing they had taken vacation leave to attend the hearing. The audience there, liberally sprinkled with career staffers, had tittered and hooted as top department officials were grilled by skeptical Democrats.
The staffers had attended in apparent defiance of an earlier memo that had said "no leave would be approved" to go to Hill hearings. That Feb. 2 memo, which had produced some angry reactions and oral clarifications, had never been disavowed formally.
"You're damned right it was intimidating," one official said of the demand for leave requests. "It looked like they were taking names."
However, Hakim Khan, who directs the office and is vulnerable to a RIF aimed at middle-level managers, denied issuing the order, and hinted that the incident was being magnified and distorted by subordinates seeking to make him lose his job.
His second-in-command, James Evans, who invoked Khan's name when giving the order to lower-level managers, denied in an interview that Khan gave the order. Where did it come from then?
"There was a misunderstanding," was all Evans would respond to a variety of questions about the incident.
Lawrence Davenport, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and one of those grilled at the congressional hearing, called the incident "a fairy tale."
But there is little tolerance for "misunderstandings" in the Indian Education Office, where nerves are on edge these days. A reorganization proposed by Davenport would eliminate 10 of 55 positions, even though employes say they have been short-handed since the last RIF.
"With what's going on at the agency, whether this is a question of employe paranoia or management problems, it demonstrates, at the least, a lack of sensitivity," said Loretta Ucelli, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employes.
"That sort of thing just adds fuel to the fire," said one staffer who, like four others interviewed, requested anonymity.
The fire had been stoked months before by the memo Khan issued to his staff on Feb. 2, listing the policies on external communications of Davenport's elementary and secondary education branch. Among other things, the memo said, "No leave will be approved to attend congressional hearings . . . . The only staff who may attend hearings are those who are scheduled to testify or those who have been requested to attend as resource persons."
The memo made no distinction between three kinds of leave--"annual" or earned vacation leave, "administrative" leave granted by supervisors and sick leave. The memo was never formally rescinded.
Although Davenport said last week that he had no memory of the memo, an identical version was issued in another office under his supervision. That one prompted a staffer to write an angry memo to Davenport--with a copy to Education Secretary T.H. Bell--saying, "When I request annual leave, it is no one's business whether I plan to go to a congressional hearing or go fishing . . . ."
Davenport replied that he had been referring to "the past practice of granting administrative leave to employes wishing to attend congressional hearings . . . ." But Davenport never clarified the memo for the rest of his subordinates, and until late last week, neither did Khan.
In an interview last week, Davenport reiterated his belief that employes did not and should not feel intimidated about attending hearings.
"Obviously, the memo was not followed because there were at least nine people from Indian Education up there," he said. "I'm just guessing at that number. I don't know for sure."