An obscure government agency is defending itself after reports this week revealed that its executive director, earning a six-figure salary from U.S. taxpayers, was also a registered lobbyist.
In a letter obtained by the Loop, Lesley Weiss, chairwoman of the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a little-known entity tasked primarily with preserving cemeteries in Europe — particularly Jewish ones left unattended for after the Holocaust — describes any allegations of wrongdoing by the agency as “extremely inaccurate.”
At issue is Jeffrey Farrow, who lobbies on behalf of the governments of Puerto Rico and Palau. In 2001, before Weiss was appointed to the honorary post, Farrow was hired as a part-time contractor to be the agency’s executive director with a with a plum arrangement: Work for the commission one day a week and bill the government for his time to the tune of more than $100,000 a year, according to a 2013 General Services Administration inspector general report provided to the Loop.
That, and other alleged misdeeds by the agency, caught the attention of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who sent a detailed 13-page letter to Weiss demanding explanations. The allegations surfaced in a scathing front-page New York Times article Tuesday.
Farrow and Weiss did not return requests for comment. But the agency did provide to the Loop the interim response Weiss planned to send to Johnson.
“During the various busier periods for the Commission, we would call upon Farrow for extended periods each day for many days,” she wrote. “Mr. Farrow has provided invaluable assistance to the Commission in pursuing its mission.”
A whistleblower within the small agency, Katarina Ryan, the only full-time federal government employee on staff, had brought up issues of mismanagement to the Office of Special Counsel, which led to an independent investigation by the GSA IG, according to various sources familiar with the case.
In the IG report, Ryan alleges that Farrow used the government “office space and equipment for his lobbying practice,” and agency funds were used to purchase subscriptions to publications such as Congressional Quarterly and the National Journal that Ryan said Farrow used for his lobbying practice.
The report also found that Farrow had routed a $1,000 donation to Palau community organizations through a formerly-existing nonprofit set up by the commission, called “Associates of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad” to “make his end-of-the-year donation a deductible one.”
Ryan was placed on administrative leave after raising complaints about how the office was run. The OSC case is still open.
Reached by the Loop, Ryan declined to comment. OSC also declined to comment.
“What emerged was a bizarre tale in which an obscure federal agency tasked with making lists of cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe morphed into the taxpayer-funded lobbying offices of an extravagantly-paid lobbyist,” Johnson wrote in his Aug. 10 letter to Weiss.
Potential conflict of interest regarding Farrow was raised almost a decade ago by Puerto Rican government officials. In a letter to then-agency chairman Warren Miller in 2006, they inquired about how Farrow could be a lobbyist interfering in Puerto Rican politics while also working for the U.S. government, according to a Jan. 12, 2006, article in the newspaper Primera Hora.
In his letter, Johnson also accuses the agency of successfully getting Congress to make a change in law to allow contractors (ie Farrow) who work for the commission to receive more than the hourly equivalent rate earned by senior executive service (SES) employees.
Weiss says Farrow worked at least 800 hours for the agency. That would come to about $131 per hour if he made just over $100,000. (However, the highest paid full-time SES employee makes $180,000 and would work about 2,000 hours. That would be about $90 per hour.)
Farrow is extremely well-connected, with access even to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s now famous private e-mail account. While being paid by the federal government, he was directly lobbying Secretary of State Clinton to intervene on issues related to Palau.
“Congratulations on Chelsea! Puerto Rico still loves her (and you would probably win even more than 2-1 now),” he wrote in closing.
“I hope the Palau Compact can be resolved soon because I doubt we will have the funds to do it next year w the budget and the potential setbacks in the mid-terms. PlS try to work w everyone to finalize. And, give my warmest ‘Hola’ to my friends in PR,” Clinton responded.
After State helped get him a favorable outcome, Farrow wrote her again, saying, “Thanks for all you did.” Clinton forwarded the note to her top adviser Jake Sullivan who had worked on it, and later joked, “Your medal ceremony is this Thursday….and it comes w a vacation in Palau.”
“I hear they have great diving…” Sullivan responded.
Weiss said the interests of Farrow’s “other clients did not relate to the mission of the commission — substantively, geographically, or in any other way — and did not present any conflict of interest.”