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Want to honor good work by a federal employee?

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Do you work with or know a federal employee who has made a particularly noteworthy contribution to the public good?

Then ’tis the season to put in a nomination for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) at servicetoamericamedals.org. The deadline is Jan. 17.

The medals, given out by the Partnership for Public Service, span eight categories, including career achievement; science and environment; and homeland security and law enforcement. Three main criteria will be used in choosing the winners: On-the-job innovation; commitment to public service and impact of their work on meeting the needs of the nation, the partnership said in a news release. Any career fed is eligible to be nominated.

Thirty finalists will be honored at a Capitol Hill awards ceremony during Public Service Recognition Week in the spring; recognition for the winners will come at a black-tie dinner next fall.

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OPM, background contractor on vetting of Navy Yard shooter

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Before he shot and killed 12 people in the Navy Yard rampage, Aaron Alexis had a string of arrests spanning years. That’s led many to wonder how he could’ve received and retained the security clearance that enabled him to enter the secure building in the first place. On Thursday, the company that performed the background check on Alexis in 2007 and the agency that oversaw the work issued separate statements in response to questions about the shooting. Here they are in their entirety:

“The security clearance process begins when an agency identifies a person who will require eligibility for access to classified information.  The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the level of access required. As the risk to national security increases, so does the level of investigation.  The existing investigative standard for a Secret clearance is a National Agency Check with Law and Credit (NACLC).  The NACLC consists of a questionnaire completed by the person being investigated and checks of federal records, credit history records, and criminal history records. When OPM undertook the background investigation for Aaron Alexis in 2007, with support from a Government contractor, USIS, the appropriate federal records were obtained, and the required fieldwork was performed.    OPM has reviewed the 2007 background investigation file for Aaron Alexis, and the agency
believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”

“Background investigations are conducted by OPM at the request of an agency and done in accordance with Executive Order 12968 and applicable investigative standards as a part of the overall security clearance process. Once the investigation is complete,
it is submitted to the adjudicating agency for review. Adjudication officials at the relevant agency evaluate the investigation and make the decision to grant or deny the security clearance. If the officials have any concerns with the investigation
once it is received, or would like additional information beyond that required by the standards, they have the opportunity to request that OPM perform further work before the agency makes its final decision.”

“OPM’s involvement with matters related to Aaron Alexis’ security clearance ended when we submitted the case to the Department of Defense (DoD) for adjudication in December 2007. DoD did not ask OPM for any additional investigative actions after it
received the completed background investigation.”

- Mert Miller, associate director for federal investigative services at OPM

“Today we were informed that in 2007, USIS conducted a background check of Aaron Alexis for OPM. We are contractually prohibited from retaining case information gathered as part of the background checks we conduct for OPM and therefore are unable to comment further on the nature or scope of this or any other background check.”

- Ray Howell, spokesman for USIS

 

 

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Agency board to talk transparency, but meeting closed to public

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The board that oversees the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent federal agency that doles out foreign aid, is meeting next week  to discuss open data and transparency.

But the meeting, it turns out, is closed to the public.

As a policy, MCC board meetings are held behind closed doors. But with transparency on the agenda, “it’s hard to see why the entire board meeting would be closed to the public,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for increased government transparency.

He credited the MCC for releasing copies of its meeting minutes. Meanwhile, MCC ranked high in a recent transparency rating of aid organizations worldwide.

Still, while discussions on personnel and pending foreign aid decisions may be appropriate for closed session, Wonderlich said the board should consider dividing between public and nonpublic portions of meetings.

Asked about the closed door policy, the MCC emailed a statement to Federal Times saying the Sunshine Act doesn’t apply to board meetings but the organization still works to be transparent.

“Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the meetings, they are not open to the public,” the MCC statement reads, adding that the organization also issues press releases and holds public town halls after board meeting to inform the public.

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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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When contract talks get heated, who’s in charge?

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Time and time again, big contractors went over the heads of General Service Administration contracting officers who were trying to negotiate good prices for the government.

But when it came time to choose, GSA supervisors sided with the contractors.

That’s the conclusion of recent GSA Office of Inspector report that raises troubling questions about the enormous pressure contracting officers can come under from contractors with close ties to managers and even members of Congress.

While GSA says it’s got new management and won’t tolerate such interference nowadays, the bigger questions are whether this sort of thing happens elsewhere, not just in GSA but in other agencies? Do lawmakers get involved? And when negotiations get heated, are contracting officers fully in charge or do contractors have outsized influence?

If there’s more to this story, let me know at jmcelhatton@federaltimes.com or (703) 750-8659.

OPM issues guidance to agencies on assisting victims of domestic violence

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Agencies have four months to develop or modify policies addressing the effects of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking on their respective workforces, according to a Feb. 8 Office of Personnel Management memo.

Agencies will then submit the policies to OPM for review and will be required to issue a final policy within six months.

“The guidance is designed to give agencies the flexibility to tailor their own individual policies to specific agency practices and culture,” OPM director John Berry said in a memo.

From the memo:

To assist agencies in developing their policies over the next several months OPM, in partnership with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and HHS, will offer a series of webinars.  Topics will include the impact of domestic and sexual violence on the workplace, the role of employers when responding to domestic violence, sexual assault and/or stalking in the workplace, and the critical components of a workplace response.

Job security in uncertain budget times

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Are you a federal or contractor IT professional who’s concerned about job security and workplace morale during these uncertain budget times? Are you considering work elsewhere, or are you hoping for the best and staying put in your current position?

Federal Times would like to hear from you. Contact Nicole Johnson at 703-750-8145 or njohnson@federaltimes.com.

TSA’s insider threat program lacks policies, procedures

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While the Transportation Security Administration has made headway in defending against insider attacks, the agency lacks specific policies and procedures to mitigate those threats, according to a recent inspector general audit.

The September audit, released this week, found that TSA has not implemented insider threat policies and procedures that clearly explain its employees’ role in defending against insider threats. TSA also lacks a risk mitigation plan that ensures all employees address the risks of insider threats in a consistent way.

TSA defines insider threat as “one or more individuals with access or insider knowledge that allows them to exploit the vulnerabilities of the nation’s transportation systems with the intent to cause harm,” according to the Department of Homeland Security IG audit. Threats can include spying, release of information, sabotage, corruption, impersonation, theft, smuggling, and terrorist attacks. Insider threats can include current and former employees and contractors.

The report noted that TSA doesn’t have a mandatory insider threat training and awareness program for employees, and it lacks protective measures to ensure unauthorized employees can’t, for instance, dump massive amounts of sensitive data onto a portable storage device.

The IG recommends that TSA’s assistant administrator for information technology:

- Further develop TSA’s insider threat program by including policies, procedures and a risk management plan.

- Require insider threat awareness training for employees.

- Direct systems administrators to disable USB ports on computers and laptops if there is not a legitimate need for them.

- Limit the size of email file attachments until the proper measures are in place to detect or prevent unauthorized exfiltration of sensitive information.

However, TSA said it has developed a directive, currently awaiting approval, that identifies polices and procedures for its insider threat program. The agency stood up a toll free hotline and email address for reporting insider threats and also plans to roll out an insider threat training and awareness program.

The agency said disabling USB ports isn’t feasible but, instead, has an application in place to alert the agency when data is transferred outside DHS networks. TSA also disagreed with any restrictions on email file sizes.

Further discussions between the agency and the IG are required to hash out differing opinions.

In June, Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, questioned TSA’s plans to purchase software that monitors employees’ keystrokes, emails and other online activities as part of a larger effort to defend against internal attacks.

In a response letter, TSA Administrator John Pistole said the software would provide TSA with forensic evidence for investigations should an employee ever be identified as a potential insider threat to TSA’s mission.

In an Oct. 3 response letter to the IG audit, the lawmakers requested a detailed description of TSA’s current spending related to the insider threat, an estimate of the anticipated lifecycle cost of the monitoring software the agency plans to buy, when TSA will have policies, procedures and a risk management plan and other information by Oct. 17.

 

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VA career tool may be example for other agencies

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Veterans Affairs Department employees have had access to one of the government’s best career-development tools since October.

Soon, you may see something like it coming to your agency.

Last week, top VA officials demonstrated the tool — called MyCareer@VA — at a meeting of administration and union leaders.

“When you think about your own career, there are times that you want to figure out how to get ahead, but there are also times that you may feel like you’re stuck and want to do something else,” said VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould as he presented the website July 18 to a meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, led by Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

Gould and Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University, said the website helps employees hurdle common career setbacks.

“We know that the number one reason people leave their organizations is because they cannot see their path, they cannot chart their path, they can’t set their goals, and they don’t set up their development plan,” Muellerweiss said.

The website, MyCareerAtVA.va.gov, prompts employees to plug in their skills and experience and then provides them a variety of jobs throughout the department that — with some additional training and education — could be a fit for them down the road.

Among the website’s key features:

  • MyCareer Mapping Tool. This searches for jobs across multiple occupational families and outlines what competencies, knowledge areas and skills are needed to reach an employee’s career goal.
  • MyCareer Fit Tool. This helps match specific jobs to an employee’s self-identified career interests and work environment preferences.
  • VA Career Guides. This offers employees detailed profiles of suggested jobs and offices they might consider as future steps on their career paths. For each job, it outlines what education, licensing, recommended training, and developmental experiences are recommended, based on the user’s profile.

The website is still growing and developing. Its searchable jobs inventory is about 75 percent complete and VA managers aim to get that figure to 100 percent of mission-critical jobs by next April.

OPM’s Berry said some agencies are looking at adopting similar career-development tools and looking specifically at the VA tool as a possible role model.

To learn more about MyCareer@VA, view the video below:

New financial reporting requirements now in force for Senior Executive Service members

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Today marks a milestone for thousands of Senior Executive Service members, general military officers and other top government officials: The onset of new reporting requirements for most stock purchases and other securities transactions worth more than $1,000.

Up to now, such transactions had to be reported only once a year on the public financial disclosure statement known as Office of Government Ethics Form 278. Now, senior officials must file “transaction reports” within 30 to 45 days, under the recently passed STOCK Act.

The new mandate applies to almost all 28,000 Form 278 filers, according to the ethics office, which issued some lengthy guidance last month. You can read it here, but suffice to say there are some big exceptions to the new requirement. It does not, for example, apply to mutual funds, Thrift Savings Plan assets, real estate or accounts held by the employee’s spouse. Folks deployed in combat zones can get an extension.

One idea behind the STOCK Act is to use public disclosure to keep government officials from using  insider knowledge for stock trading purposes. As originally envisioned, the main target was Congress. But along the way, someone on Capitol Hill– FedLine is still wondering who—decided that senior military officers and top civilian employees should be covered as well.

The stepped-up emphasis on disclosure doesn’t stop there.  By the end of next month, agencies are also supposed to post all Form 278s on the Internet. The Senior Executives Association, which represents career SESers, is already on record as opposing that requirement as an unwarranted intrusion on feds’ privacy; this week, the Assembly of Scientists, which represents some National Institutes of Health staff, released a letter warning that the new provisions could keep NIH from hiring and retaining “the best and the brightest scientists.”

“Many senior employees, faced with diminished privacy rights, are discussing leaving the government for the private sector,” Dr. Florence Haseltine, the assembly’s president, wrote in a letter to Congress.  “Colleagues at universities are concerned and less likely to accept positions at national laboratories, thereby putting U.S. institutions at a disadvantage in recruiting and retaining the nation’s most prominent and creative scientists.”

Such concerns notwithstanding, the odds of lawmakers’ repealing or delaying the new requirements appear slim. Employee groups are meanwhile mulling a lawsuit on Privacy Act grounds.

 

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