A senior executive at the Education Department who was the target of a four-hour interrogation by members of Congress on Tuesday collapsed after the hearing and was taken by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital.
Danny Harris, 56, the department’s chief information officer, fell ill after he fielded pointed questions and stinging criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. A department spokeswoman said Harris was conscious and stable as of late Tuesday afternoon.
The lawmakers’ concerns centered on an inspector general’s investigation that found Harris ran an after-hours car-detailing and home-theater-installation business that employed two subordinates from his agency and also allegedly accepted payments from other subordinates for the work.
The hearing also examined Harris’s effort to help a relative find work at the department and his close friendship with an agency vendor whose company has been awarded about $10 million in contracts to perform work that falls under the purview of his office.
Harris also failed to report an estimated $10,000 in income from his outside activities on federal disclosure forms and to the Internal Revenue Service, according to federal officials.
Although Harris told lawmakers that he exercised “poor judgment,” he said that his side jobs were hobbies, even as he earned money for them and paid subordinates to help him. He also had created business cards and a logo for the business.
“These are hobbies that I enjoyed for the greater part of my life,” said Harris, who joined the agency as a summer intern in 1985 and steadily rose through the ranks. “The employees that wanted to engage me, two of them wanted to learn from me. I am a teacher — that is what I love to do.”
But members of the committee were disbelieving.
They were also infuriated to learn that Harris was not subjected to disciplinary action and received regular $17,000 annual bonuses on top of his yearly salary of $180,000 even as he was being investigated by the inspector general. The bonuses also came during a period when Harris’s department failed to meet federal goals concerning data security.
“Let me tell you what you’re conveying to the American people and, more importantly, to the 4,000 employees of the Department of Education,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “You can bend the rules — it’s just a matter of who you are.”
The agency’s inspector general’s office launched an investigation into Harris’s activities in 2011 after receiving anonymous complaints. By 2013, it had confirmed most of the allegations, said Deputy Inspector General Sandra Bruce. The inspector general made a criminal referral to the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, which declined to prosecute, citing the availability of administrative punishments.
But the most that happened to Harris was that he was “counseled” by acting education secretary John King Jr. and his two predecessors, as well as the agency’s ethics officer.
When a string of lawmakers asked King whether he believed that Harris did anything wrong, he repeatedly said, “Based on the recommendation of our general counsel, I do not believe there was a violation of regulation, law or policy.”
That mantra seemed to anger members of the committee, who turned their focus to King.
“Outside this bubble of Washington, D.C., the rest of the country would view what Mr. Harris did as a violation of law or regulation,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
“Your job is not to protect Mr. Harris. It is to set a proper tone, standards of conduct for your agency. . . . You can’t use the shield of relying on the advice of your attorney. It is your job to make the right decision. You made the wrong one.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the panel, was more blunt.
“Mr. King, you’ve been given this mantle of trust from the president of the United States, and you’re failing,” he said.