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Feds fall victim in ID theft scam

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Federal employees were among the hundreds of victims of what prosecutors Thursday described as a large-scale identify theft ring operating in the Washington area.

Ten people were charged in the scam to steal personal information, including social security numbers, from dental and insurance offices and other area businesses, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia announced in a news release Thursday.

A copy of the indictment can be viewed here.

Prosecutors said more than 600 potential victims have been identified, including employees at the State and Defense departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Once they stole the personal data, members of the identity theft conspiracy used that information to create bogus ID’s to open credit lines under the victims’ names, running up charges at Macy’s, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, according to the 16-page indictment.

Prosecutors announced the arrests of: Janero Blalock, 31, and Christopher Bush, 39, whom authorities identified as the ringleaders, as well as Adrienne Pritchett, 42; Segale Battle, 30; Jamille Ferguson, 31; Tekia Thomas, 20; and Elizabeth Monika Hunter, 19.

Two others were already in custody: Jennifer Scruggs, 44, and Rungnatee Person, 45. Prosecutors said an arrest warrant had been issued for one other defendant, Kevin Middleton, 32.

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Ethics waiver for State Dept. adviser over Boston Globe, New York Times ties

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Glen Johnson, the former online politics editor of the Boston Globe who now serves as senior adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, required a special waiver so he wouldn’t run afoul of ethics rules by communicating with reporters from his old newspaper and the New York Times.

The State Department granted the wavier back in February, but the decision wasn’t added to a public list of such waivers maintained by the Office of Government Ethics until last week.

Under ethics rules that aimed to close the revolving door between government and special interests, President Obama has barred political appointees from working on particular matters “directly or substantially” related to their previous employer for two years while in the government.

In a copy of the waiver decision posted on the Office of Government Ethics site, Richard Visek, deputy legal adviser for the State Department, noted that Johnson’s job as senior adviser includes serving as an important link between media outlets and the State Department.

The waiver applied to Johnson’s communications with the New York Times because it owns the Globe, although The Times recently announced plans to sell the newspaper.

“I have determined that this waiver is appropriate as a policy matter because it is in the public interest of Americans to have access to information about the Secretary of State’s work, and many Americans receive news through media outlets owned or controlled by The Boston Globe or the New York Times Company,” Visek wrote.

“Without this waiver, Mr. Johnson would be limited in his ability to communicate with the Boston Globe or the New York Times company, and Americans’ access to news about the activities of the Department of State would potentially be impaired.”

The paperwork said Johnson owned a de minimus amount of stock in the New York Times Company, though he said he is planning to sell his holdings.

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Association of Government Accountants honors agency reporting

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Twenty agencies big and small were recently noted for top-notch financial and performance reporting by the Association of Government Accountants.

The “Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting” (CEAR)  singles out “high-quality Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs) and Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) that effectively illustrate and assess financial and program performance, accomplishments and challenges, cost and accountability,” the accountants association said in a news release. The association also spotlights the teams of dedicated federal professionals who (often unsung) put the reports together.

“Given the fiscal status of the United States government and the public’s perceptions about government fiscal accountability and transparency, the achievement of this year’s CEAR recipients is even more significant,” AGA Executive Director Relmond Van Daniker said in the release. The agencies being honored “truly represent a select group within the government financial management community.”

Here’s a rundown of the winners:

Architect of the Capitol
Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Housing Finance Agency
Federal Trade Commission
NASA
Office of Financial Stability (Treasury Department)
Peace Corps
Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Education Department
Housing and Urban Development Department
Interior Department
Labor Department
State Department
Treasury Department
Government Accountability Office
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Patent and Trademark Office
Securities and Exchange Commission
Small Business Administration
Social Security Administration

Also honored at the May 22 National Press Club ceremony were 10 agencies that showed “specific points of excellence” within their fiscal year 2012 PARs. Known as ‘Best in Class’ awards, the recipients included:

Health and Human Services Department: Best Summary of Management and Performance Challenges by the Inspector General
Labor Department: Most Complete Schedule of Spending
Peace Corps: Most Comprehensive and Candid Presentation of Forward-Looking Information
FTC: Best Agency Head Message
HUD: Best Presentation of a Financial Management Systems Framework
Interior: Best High-Level Discussion of Performance
Capitol Architect: Best Analysis of an Agency’s Financial Statements
FAA: Most Representative of Editorial Excellence
Department of Homeland Security: Best Improper Payment and Recovery Act Reporting
Central Intelligence Agency: Best Introduction

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Feds file charges, seek yacht in State contract fraud probe

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Kathleen McGrade was a contract specialist inside the State Department, but prosecutors say she didn’t live like one.

Steering tens of millions of dollars in work to a company controlled by her husband, McGrade bought a yacht, penthouse condo and lots of jewelry, according to charges unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Virginia.

McGrade, 64, and her husband, Brian C. Collinsworth, 46, both of Fredericksburg, Va., face up to 20 years in prison on charges stemming from what authorities called a “secret scheme” by the couple to steer more than $60 million to a company they controlled.

Authorities said McGrade was a private contract employee assigned to work as a contract specialist inside the State Department. Though she kept the relationship with her husband a secret from colleagues, she signed off on payments to her husband’s company, authorities said.

In forfeiture papers filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on April 2, prosecutors also said McGrade was “involved in nearly every stage” of the contracting process. They say the scheme lasted from December to 2007 until August 2011.

Prosecutors are seeking three properties tied to the scheme along with a Steinway piano, a yacht, artwork and jewelry that includes a matching sapphire and diamond necklace and bracelet set that cost $136,500.

A phone number listed for McGrade in Virginia was disconnected, and attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

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Foreign Service Officers peeved over new United pet policy

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The union that represents Foreign Service Officers naturally does its best to be diplomatic, but the strain is evident in a standoff with United Airlines over a recently adopted pet transportation policy.

The new policy, which follows United’s merger with Continental Airlines, requires most pets to be shipped as cargo, instead of permitting them to travel with their owners as baggage.

The fur, at least, has been flying ever since.

“Many of our members are greatly distressed by this development because of the sharply increased costs involved,” Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote in a letter last month to United CEO Jeff Smisek. In addition, Johnson said, some countries are “simply not equipped to deal with pets as cargo.”

The change could increase the cost of shipping a 14-pound cat from $250 to $1,200, Johnson added in a follow-up interview. United has already exempted military service members traveling on “change of station” orders from the pet policy. Now, AFSA is seeking the same waiver for federal civilian employees flying to and from permanent assignments abroad, Johnson said. An AFSA “call to action” generated almost 3,000 emailed letters to United; some past and current Foreign Service Officers have also set up a Facebook page titled “Fabulous Foreign Service Pets.”

So far, however, United isn’t budging. While the airline respects the work that Foreign Service Officers do, it has no plans to make other exceptions for them, spokeswoman Mary Ryan said. On its web site, United touts the new policy’s benefits, such as confirmed booking before departure and a 24-hour live animal help desk.

As one of the world’s largest carriers, United can be hard to avoid, although the State Department last month sought to give employees more options for discretion when pet transportation comes into play.

For Rachel Schneller, a Foreign Service Officer now stationed in Washington, the thought of heading to a posting in France this summer without her two cats is, well, unthinkable.

“They’re irreplaceable, they’re priceless,” Schneller said of Oscar and Tivka, rescued from a garbage can in Macedonia a decade ago. “In theory, I could try to find homes for them, but it would break my heart.”

For Sadie Dworak, a Foreign Service Officer currently stationed in Saudi Arabia, the perils were poignantly illustrated two years ago when she shipped her shih tzu, Hattie, as cargo from Frankfurt, Germany to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

After 20 hours in a stifling terminal, Dworak said in a phone interview, Hattie was dead.

Dworak has since gotten two cats. When her Saudi assignment ends this summer, she said the United policy could mean shipping cost of more than  $2,500, compared to about $600 under the old policy. While the State Department provides some help with“miscellaneous” moving costs, that assistance probably won’t cover even half the bill, Dworak said.

“Should we have to pay those costs every single time when we’re serving our country?,” she asked.

 

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Watchdog group: Four IG offices now leaderless for years

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Hard to believe, but the State Department’s Office of Inspector General has been without a permanent head for more than four years.

That fact, highlighted this week by the Project on Government Oversight, puts the office in an unlucky class of four IG agencies that have had vacancies at the top for at least 1,000 days.

The others are the Interior and Labor departments and the Corporation for National and Community Service. While the Obama administration last fall nominated attorney Deborah Jeffrey for the inspector general’s job at the national service corporation, the Senate has yet to confirm her.

But the White House has named no one for the top positions at the other three offices. Although there are undoubtedly plenty of competent career folks to carry on in the meantime, ‘”a permanent IG has the ability to set a long-term strategic plan, . . . including setting investigative and audit priorities,” POGO said on its web site, adding that the administration has “no good excuse” for failing to nominate someone for a post that has been vacant for years.

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment today.

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State’s chief security official to head DHS cyber division

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The State Department’s top security chief is leaving his post to oversee a newly created cybersecurity division at the Department of Homeland Security.

John Streufert will replace Nicole Dean as director of DHS’ National Cyber Security Division on Jan. 17, where he will be tasked to build and maintain an “effective cyberspace response system” and implement a program for protecting critical infrastructure, DHS’ Roberta Stempfley said in an email Friday to employees within the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications. Streufert will also work to strengthen DHS’ partnerships with the private sector and international organizations.

“Although Nicole is leaving rather large shoes to fill, there is no doubt that John’s range of experience will also bring vast knowledge and innovation to the NCSD organization,” Stempfley said in the email.

The move comes as the administration works to strengthen DHS’ role in cybersecurity. Under the White House cybersecurity proposal, DHS would have the lead in protecting dot-gov domains and be a key liaison with the private sector. The proposal would also require critical infrastructure firms to adhere to cybersecurity guidelines created by industry and approved by DHS.

DHS will also play a major role in the administration’s Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) by coordinating automated continuous monitoring of industry cloud solutions.

Streufert’s success in improving cybersecurity at State makes him an ideal candidate for the director position. He has served as the department’s chief information security officer and deputy chief information officer for information assurance since 2006. He reduced security vulnerabilities on the department’s personal computers and servers by about 90 percent between 2008 and 2009 by using continuous monitoring software.

Rick Perry blasts diplomats, AFSA returns fire

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(Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry on Monday accused the State Department’s Foreign Service officers of not acting “in America’s best interest.” CNN reported that Perry said:

“I’m not sure our State Department serves us well,” the Texas governor said on a radio program with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “I’m not talking about the Secretary of State here. I’m talking about the career diplomats and the Secretary of State who, all too often, may not be making decisions, or giving advice to the administration that’s in this country’s best interest.”

Perry said Congressional action might be required to ensure the nation’s diplomatic corps is taking actions that benefit America.

“We need to have a discussion with Congress to make sure that the decisions that are being made are in America’s best interest,” Perry said.

Perry’s problem with the Foreign Service seems to be that they’re not making it clear to Pakistan that they need to get their intelligence service — which is widely suspected to be aiding terrorists and militants in Afghanistan — under control.

The American Foreign Service Association today basically said (in appropriately diplomatic terms) that Perry doesn’t know what he’s talking about. AFSA, which represents Foreign Service officers around the world, issued a statement that said Perry’s comments “reflect a serious misunderstanding of [diplomats'] role in promoting American interests overseas.” AFSA cited the hundreds of diplomats that have been killed in the line of duty in places like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Beirut, before delivering this line:

[Diplomats] serve at the pleasure of the president, are confirmed by Congress and need the informed support of both branches of government to be effective.

[...] To keep America strong and secure, we need more diplomacy, not less. And we need more, not less, support from our political leaders and citizens for their work to defend and advance our interests abroad.

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Agencies subpoenaed to testify on small business leadership

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House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves today issued subpoenas to four federal agencies seeking answers for why they refuse to put senior leadership in charge of small business contracting activities, a committee spokesman said.

The Treasury, State, Justice and Agriculture departments have said they believe they are in compliance with the spirit of  a law that requires agencies to put their Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization in direct contact with the agency’s secretary or deputy secretary.

Each agency is required to have an Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) under the Small Business Act to ensure contracts are written with small business participation in mind.

The Government Accountability Office reported in June that the seven departments did not comply with the requirements. Some agencies name top level officials as OSDBU directors but have less senior administrators do day-to-day activities. Others have the OSDBU director report to officials other than the secretary or deputy secretary.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, chairman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, sent letters to the noncompliant agencies in August asking them to reorganize their OSDBU offices so that the offices reported to senior leadership. The Interior Department and Social Security Administration responded by reorganizing their small business offices.

But the Treasury, State, Justice and Agriculture departments told Mulvaney they believe they are in compliance with the spirit of the law and will not change.

The subpoenas issued today require the deputy secretaries of those four unchanged agencies to explain their reasons at a full House Small Business Committee hearing on Nov. 1.

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Counternarcotics contracts lack oversight

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Poor oversight of federal counternarcotics contracts calls to question how billions of tax dollars were spent, a congressional report shows.

Neither the State or Defense departments, which award most counternarcotics contracts, have adequate systems to track and evaluate contract data, the June 7 report states.

The report was prepared for Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight, after a May 2010 hearing revealed neither the State nor Defense departments could provide information about the contracts awarded for fighting drug production in eight countries south of the U.S. border.

“Without adequate oversight and management we are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we’re getting in return,” McCaskill said in a news release. “As we increase our counternarcotics contracting in Afghanistan, we can’t make these same mistakes again.”
The lack of oversight has led to inadequate competition, poor recordkeeping, and deficient transparency, the report states.

Annual spending on counternarcotics contracts in Latin America rose 32 percent over the five years reviewed in the report, from $482 million in 2005 to $636 million in 2009.

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