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SILVER SCREEN FEDS: Interior IG finds Leslie Knope abused authority

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Leslie Knope (Courtesy of NBC)

Leslie Knope (Courtesy of NBC)

SPOILER ALERT: The NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation ended its sixth season last night with the endlessly-optimistic public servant Leslie Knope becoming a federal employee by accepting a job as the National Park Service’s Midwest Regional Director, and then talking her new boss into relocating the office to her hometown of Pawnee, Indiana. Which is great news for the show’s viewers, but raises troubling questions about multiple violations of civil service rules.

FedLine has exclusively obtained a copy of the Interior Department’s inspector general report into Regional Director Knope’s activities:

To: Jonathan Jarvis, director, National Park Service

From: Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general, Interior Department

Subject: Abuse of authority by Midwest Regional Director Leslie Knope, National Park Service

We initiated an audit of NPS’ abrupt relocation of its Midwest Regional Office from Chicago to Pawnee, Ind., after receiving several complaints from long-time NPS employees. We found multiple irregularities and violations of federal hiring authorities and facilities regulations on the part of newly-hired Regional Director Leslie Knope and her supervisor, Grant Larson.

Finding: The office’s relocation to Pawnee was highly irregular.

Mr. Larson agreed to relocate an entire office, staffed with dozens of employees who resided in Chicago, on Ms. Knope’s recommendation. While Pawnee’s lower cost of living, proximity to many national parks and access to above-average breakfast food is advantageous, NPS did not conduct a full and open competition to decide which city to relocate the regional office to, in violation of federal regulations.

Once the decision to move to Pawnee was made, Mr. Larson failed to conduct a full and open competition to find acceptable office space, instead taking Ms. Knope’s word that renting the third floor of the Pawnee City Hall would be most cost-effective.

"Give me all the bacon and eggs you have." (Courtesy of NBC)

“Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.” (Courtesy of NBC)

The recent renovation of the third floor was apparently done in his spare time by Pawnee Parks and Recreation Director Ron Swanson. While Mr. Swanson’s woodwork appears exemplary, we have concerns that a federal workspace was renovated without proper oversight, inspections and approvals.

In an interview, Mr. Swanson did not directly respond to our request for inspection records. He instead fixed a long, unbroken stare on investigators, and silently directed their attention to what appeared to be a Claymore land mine positioned on his desk. When we asked if the Claymore remained operational, Mr. Swanson giggled. Investigators advise that the presence of possible live explosives near a federal workspace represents an unacceptable risk.

In addition, NPS has received multiple EEO complaints about the murals on display in Pawnee City Hall, many of which have been called offensive to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish people, women and Presbyterians. The continued display of the murals may constitute a hostile work environment.

NPS employees also raised environmental concerns related to the move to Pawnee. Environmental Protection Agency studies have consistently found concentrated high-fructose corn syrup from the Sweetums factory has leached into Pawnee’s water supply. Investigators concluded that relocation to Pawnee may present hazards to the long-term health of NPS employees.

Finding: Leslie Knope’s tenure as regional director has been marked by rampant cronyism.

Ms. Knope’s qualifications to be regional director are unassailable. Her work ethic, enthusiasm for public service, and knowledge of the fiscal and operational challenges facing parks programs are matched by none.

However, her loyalty to her friends has resulted in mismanagement of her new office, and the flagrant disregard of federal hiring regulations.

After accepting the job, Mr. Larson incorrectly told Ms. Knope that she could hire whomever she wanted. She then made multiple verbal offers of employment to her co-workers in the Pawnee Parks Department, without considering veterans preference, using the category rating system, or posting the vacancies on USAJOBS.gov. While Ms. Knope’s dedication to federal hiring reform is admirable, we remain concerned her methods overlooked qualified candidates, and did not result in the best people being hired for the job.

Her employment of Pawnee employee Terry Gergich (AKA Larry, Jerry and Gary Gergich) is an example of the problematic hiring practices in Ms. Knope’s office. Mr. Gergich was hired despite the fact that he displays no apparent skills or basic competence, and based on interviews, even appears unsure of what his actual first name is. In addition, Mr. Gergich is technically a retired Pawnee government employee, raising concerns about pension double-dipping.

During a recent visit, investigators observed Ms. Knope’s friends April Ludgate and Andy Dwyer caring for her three children. It was unclear whether Ms. Ludgate and Mr. Dwyer remain government employees, but if that is the case, their provision of child care services during work hours to Ms. Knope would also present an ethical violation.

Conclusions

While Ms. Knope’s behavior has been problematic, we find that it would not be cost-effective to find another location for the Midwest Regional Office at this late date. It is also too late to root out Ms. Knope’s friends and associates from National Park Service positions without generating lawsuits. We advise Ms. Knope be reprimanded and told not to do it again.

The General Services Administration’s Office of Inspector General has been advised of our findings and is preparing its own investigation.

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Farewell

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After 11 years, at least 300 cover stories, and a few thousand articles, today marks my last as a reporter at Federal Times. This afternoon, I will move over to our sister paper, Air Force Times, where I will cover Air Force personnel issues. The pay and benefits beat is now in the exceptionally skilled hands of Sean Reilly, and if you’d like, you can follow my Air Force Times coverage at my Twitter feed.

I’m excited to have this opportunity to cover the military, and write about all new issues at a time of unprecedented change for our armed forces. But I’m also a little sad to leave a paper and community that’s been such a big part of my life for more than a decade. So before I go, I’d like to tell all our federal readers thank you. Thank you for reading my stories, and thank you for what you do. Especially during these tough times, the nation needs people to care for veterans, guard the borders, fight wildfires, ensure our food is safe, deliver mail, and perform countless other vital tasks.

I’d especially like to thank the hundreds of federal employees across the country who have shared their thoughts and opinions with me over the years. Federal Times strongly believes that agency directors and congressmen aren’t the only people whose voices deserve to be heard, and it’s been important to us to include your voices in our articles — even though we know you’re often told not to talk to the media. Again, thank you for allowing me to tell your stories.

Whether writing about problems with the Defense Department’s ill-fated pay-for-performance system, the government’s sluggish pension processing, or contracting misconduct by U.S. Postal Service executives, I hope I’ve been able to have a positive effect on the federal community. It’s been an honor to help keep you informed.

No Presidential Rank Awards this year — what do you think?

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The White House this week announced that, with the government facing massive budget crunches, there will be no Presidential Rank Awards handed out this year.

What do you think about this development? Is it unfair and a bad sign for the overall federal workforce? Or do you think it’s a necessary step to take? Sound off below, or write me at slosey@federaltimes.com. I’ll keep your comments anonymous if you’d like.

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SPJ honors Federal Times for investigative journalism

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Federal Times is proud to announce the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalist honored us with two first-place Dateline Awards last night:

  • My June 4, 2012 story “At GSA, almost everyone rates a bonus” received first prize for weekly investigative reporting. This story dove into bonus data across the government and uncovered how nearly 9 in 10 employees at the troubled General Services Administration — which had just been rocked by its Las Vegas conference scandal and revelations of lax bonus policies — received bonuses in 2011. The SPJ judges said the story’s “Interesting analysis of public records shows that even when times are tough, some federal agencies still take care of their own before taking care of the public.”
  • My Aug. 15 story “IG investigating two VA conferences that cost a combined $5 million” won the top award for daily spot news. This is the online story that broke the news on the investigation into the Veterans Affairs Department’s two pricey human resources conferences in Orlando, Fla. in 2011. Our follow-up reporting detailed how VA spent $52,000 on a video parodying the movie “Patton” that was only shown twice, and brought down former Chief Human Capital Officer John Sepulveda. “Exposing public employees potentially receiving improper gifts in the course of spending millions of taxpayer dollars was a great scoop,” SPJ’s judges said.

My Nov. 5 story “1 in 6 retired lawmakers get six-figure pensions” was also a finalist in the weekly investigative reporting category.

Federal Times also won one Dateline Award in 2012, three in 2011, and two in 2009.

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Thinking of phased retirement? We want to hear from you

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The Office of Personnel Management today published proposed regulations on a new phased retirement option, which will let federal employees ease into retirement on a part-time basis, while still getting half a pension.

You can read all about OPM’s plan here. And we’d like to hear from you on this potentially monumental change. Are you interested in phasing into retirement? If so, why? (Or if not, why not?) And if you are a manager, do you think allowing your employees to take phased retirement will help with your agency’s succession planning and knowledge retention efforts?

E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to talk anonymously, that’s fine.

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SILVER SCREEN FEDS: Stan Beeman, FBI, ‘The Americans’

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FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Craig Blankenhorn/FX)

Silver Screen Feds returns this week with an in-depth look at a major character from this year’s best new TV show: the Cold War spy drama “The Americans.” I’ve enjoyed watching the gifted, flawed FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman unfold over this show’s premiere season. And after watching its May Day finale, I decided that Beeman is too complicated to shoehorn into a narrow “best” or “worst” category, so I’m going to examine both sides of his character. MAJOR SPOILERS for the first season follow.

“The Americans” primarily focuses on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two KGB agents who have been living undercover in Northern Virginia for decades, posing as husband and wife and raising two children while spying for the Soviet Union. As the show begins, right after President Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Beeman and his estranged family move in next door to the Jenningses.

Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich, who we previously profiled as the CDC scientist in “The Walking Dead”) is extraordinarily good at the spy game, often thinking three moves ahead of his adversaries. Early on, he catches a Soviet embassy clerk named Nina selling Russian caviar to the black market, and uses that information to turn her into a double agent. Beeman’s new mole begins feeding him valuable information on what is going on inside the rezidentura, allowing him to identify hidden Soviet spies and a sleeper cell of collaborating Americans.

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Navy delaying furlough notices

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The Navy today told its employees that furlough letters — which were scheduled to go out Monday — will be delayed until further notice.

A Navy official told Federal Times that because the service hadn’t gotten the final furlough policy from the Pentagon, it was putting its notification effort on hold. Unless Navy hears otherwise, it is still expecting to furlough employees for up to 14 days by the end of fiscal 2013.

“We understand [the furlough process] causes angst and concern, and to mitigate that, we’ve tried to be as informative as we can,” a Navy official said. “Until we get that policy officially, we won’t be able to put out official notifications.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to announce his decision soon — perhaps as soon as next week — on how broad the furloughs will be.

The Navy, like all federal agencies, must give employees 30 days of official notice before it can actually furlough them. If the Navy’s notices went out May 6, as originally planned, that would mean June 5 would have been the earliest furloughs could begin. That would leave 16 weeks to furlough employees before the end of the fiscal year in September. But the delay in issuing notices could shorten that window.

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ICE officer wounded in Boston bombing discharged from hospital

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A 32-year-old Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, who was one of more than 170 people wounded in Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, was discharged from a local hospital Wednesday. In an e-mail to Federal Times today, ICE said the unnamed, off-duty officer sustained non-life threatening injuries and had surgery Tuesday.

ICE did not say whether the officer was a runner or spectator, but said he lives in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston.

Federal Times reported yesterday that an ICE officer had been wounded. The Office of Personnel Management said it was unaware of any other wounded federal employees.

In other news, OPM said Wednesday it has received the Boston Federal Executive Board’s request for a special solicitation to benefit victims of the bombing, and that it expects to make a decision soon.

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Obama: OPM’s Berry ‘a champion for federal workers’

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John Berry (from Office of Personnel Management)

President Obama this afternoon bid farewell to departing Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry today in a statement:

John Berry has served the American people well as Director of the Office of Personnel Management.  He’s streamlined the way federal employees are hired, modernized the workplace, made the federal workforce more diverse, and increased the number of returning servicemembers hired by the government.  John has been a champion for federal workers – men and women who devote their lives to vital tasks like securing our borders, curing disease, and keeping the American people safe.  This country is better off because of John’s talent and dedication, and I’m grateful to him for his service.

After the jump, you can find Berry’s complete goodbye message to OPM staff.

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Federal Times brings you budget coverage all day today

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Make sure you keep checking FederalTimes.com through the day for up-to-the-minute coverage of the White House’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal. The budget will go online at 11:15 a.m. today, and the Federal Times crew will immediately start diving into the numbers to find out who are the winners and who are the losers. (Although given the way things have been going lately, we expect a lot more losers than winners this year.)

We already know that President Obama is going to propose switching to the chained CPI, and cutting federal retirement benefits by $35 billion. Check our story from last Friday for more on what that means for you.

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