A senior National Weather Service official helped write the job description and set the salary for his own post-retirement consulting post– then came back to the office doing the same job with a $43,200 raise, the agency’s watchdog found.
The deputy chief financial officer also demanded that he be paid a $50,000 housing allowance near Weather Service headquarters in downtown Silver Spring in violation of government rules for contractors, one of numerous improprieties in a revolving-door deal sealed with full knowledge of senior agency leaders, according to an investigation by the Commerce Department inspector general’s office.
With his consulting job and housing allowance in place, P. Donald Jiron retired from the Weather Service in early May 2010, then returned to work as a consultant the next day, while collecting his government pension, investigators said. By the time he was fired 21 months later, the government had paid him another $471,875.34.
The investigation made public this week does not name Jiron, who worked as a GS-15 before his retirement and now lives in Williamsburg, Va. But government officials familiar with the case identified him. His lawyer, Matthew Kaiser, said in a statement, “Mr. Jiron has not done anything wrong” because he acted “at the direction of and with the approval of his supervisor at all times.”
The inspector general did not dispute that, and came to an alarming conclusion about the roles of senior officials in the Jiron deal: His procurement of his own post-retirement job appears to be commonplace throughout the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service’s parent agency.
“This contract may be indicative of a routine and troubling practice at NOAA of hiring former employees as contractors for purposes of carrying out similar duties to those they performed prior to leaving federal service,” investigators wrote.
The Weather Service paid Jiron “to do many of the same things as a consultant that it had been paying him a lower salary to do while he was still a federal employee,” the report said.
During an interview with investigators about the case, a high-ranking Weather Service official wondered aloud, “why we have all these people that retire and then we go and hire them to come back,” the inspector general said. The contracting official who helped arrange the deal told investigators that similar arrangements “happen all the time” at NOAA — but the contracting staff did not “question or at least more closely scrutinize this arrangement,” the report said.
It’s not illegal for federal employees to be rehired by the government as contractors. But their jobs must be open to full competition, and it is a conflict of interest for someone to negotiate the terms of a private-sector job for a federal agency while employed at the same agency, in more or less the same job.
Jiron also broke other rules, investigators found. He used his position as a contractor and former senior official to pressure Weather Service staff to give his daughter a job, skirting federal hiring rules that require competition. In return, he told a hiring supervisor he would make sure she got a promotion if she brought on his daughter. The daughter did not end up being hired.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and an advocate for stronger punishment for federal employees found guilty of misconduct, said in a statement:
“It is shameful that some federal employees choose to abuse their authority for selfish gain. This type of behavior casts a shadow on the thousands of federal employees who work hard every day to honorably serve the American people. It is important to root out these bad apples and hold them accountable for their misconduct.”
Jiron’s arrangement started when his supervisor told him he wanted to hire him as a consultant because agency leaders were worried that his retirement would leave them without his years of budget and accounting expertise, the report said. Jiron told his boss he would agree to return to the Weather Services only certain conditions, and the boss agreed.
One was his salary. Jiron arranged an hourly consulting rate that amounted to a $3,600 monthly raise over his GS-15 salary. But his “post-retirement ‘raise’ was in fact much greater than that,” the report notes, “considering [the Weather Service] paid for more than $50,000 worth of his housing expenses.”
Kaiser said the agency’s contracting officials approved the deal, relieving his client of responsibility for wrongdoing.
“That a long-time distinguished public servant can have his name dragged through the mud for following the advice of his boss and his agency’s compliance officials should be absolutely terrifying for every federal employee at an agency with an overly aggressive inspector general,” Kaiser said.