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Committee passes bill to limit Oil paintings for government officials to $20,000 each

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The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted May 21 to limit the federal dollars spent on oil paintings of government officials – and restrict who gets to have themselves painted.

The aptly named Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Senators Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would permanently cap the amount of each painting to $20,000 and would limit those eligible to those in line for presidential succession.

While the government is currently prohibited from spending money on oil paintings of government officials the ban lasts only through this fiscal year, while the current legislation would be permanent. Federal officials could still use non-federal sources of money for any cost overruns.

Reports from the New York Times and other organizations have said the government spends upwards of $800,000 on oil paintings of officials and each one could cost $50,000.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., voted against the bill saying during the vote amount is still excessive, and will instead work to renew the ban through the annual spending bills.

Coburn said while he doesn’t believe the government should spend any money on oil paintings, the legislation is a compromise that has a chance of passing before the ban expires at the end of September.

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11 things you probably didn’t know were in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015

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The Capitol Building, (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Capitol Building, (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On May 8, the House Armed Services Committee voted on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 – about 15 minutes after midnight. The committee voted on hundreds of amendments and debated the legislation for more than 12 hours before finally passing it.

You have probably heard some of the highlights of whats in the bill, but here is a longer list of stuff that made it in that you might not have heard about.

Now remember, the bill still needs to be voted on by the full House and then by the Senate, so there are still changes that can happen. But as of right now, these items are in the legislation.

1. An extension of a spending cap on contract services through fiscal 2015 – which prevents the Defense Department from cutting civilian employees and transferring the work to contractors, according to amendment sponsor Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, R-Hawaii. The NDAA caps spending on contract services at fiscal 2010 levels.

2. Another provision forces DoD  to eliminate any unauthorized personal services and contracts for any inherently governmental functions and reduce the spending on contractors for work close to being inherently governmental to “the maximum extent practicable.”

(Staff Sgt. John D. Strong II / Air Force)

3. A prohibition on DoD changing what can be sold in base exchanges and commissaries. Many lawmakers have proposed cuts to the commissary budget while others have pushed to limit sales of various items.

4 A rule requiring DoD to determine which of its workforces – military, civilian or contractor – would be most cost-effective when determining work assignments for non-critical mission areas.

5. The extension of a pilot program that allows whistleblowers to appeal cases from the Merit Systems Protection Board to any circuit court – instead of being restricted to the federal circuit court – for three more years.

6. The Defense Department would be exempt from energy efficiency measures and metering efforts identified in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Currently DoD must reduce energy use in its domestic facilities and encourage energy efficiency efforts.

7. DoD cannot build a biofuel facility without Congressional approval. Some lawmakers are concerned DoD plans to purchase or refurbish a biofuel facility.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

8. DoD must report on how much it costs to transport members of Congress on trips outside the United States.

9. A prohibition for DoD against purchasing biofuels except for testing purposes until the price per gallon is the same as traditional fuel. The Navy has been pushing biofuels as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fuel.

10. The NDAA reduces the number of enlisted aides that support general officers. Right now they are limited to 300, but the bill would reduce that number to 244.

11. The NDAA was actually renamed the “Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal year 2015″ after the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

 

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Tensions high after masked men threaten Bureau of Land Management workers

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Things are getting scary out west for federal workers.

On May 6 on Interstate 15 in Utah a pair of masked men in a pickup truck rode up beside a Bureau of Land Management car and, brandishing a gun and holding a note reading “you need to die” before driving off. The license plate was covered with duct tape and law enforcement has yet to locate the vehicle or the suspects.

Jeff Krauss, spokesman for BLM, said the agency is looking into the matter with the help of law enforcement.

“Threats against BLM employees will not be tolerated.  We are pursuing this matter with local law enforcement.”

The incident, first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, is one of several recent incidents where armed men have confronted federal workers and comes at a time when tensions are rising. Over the last few weeks BLM halted operations to remove the cattle of rancer Cliven Bundy, who owes more than $1 million in grazing fees and some protesters have begun driving ATVs onto federal lands to protest what they see as strict usage laws.

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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Not with a bang but with a high-pitched whimper. The slow death of the federal helium program

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On Oct. 1, 2013 the federal government became the victim of a gridlocked Congress and began to shut down. Hundreds of thousands of workers were furloughed without notice while many more kept working – unsure of when they would be paid.

Just one day later the 50 or so employees at the Bureau of Land Management’s Cliffside Gas Field – the last remaining federal helium plant – breathed a sigh of relief. The facility had only been allowed to operate until Oct. 7, but Congress had managed to finalize legislation that would keep the facility open for more than six years.

The Bureau of Land Management's remaining helium facility.

The Bureau of Land Management’s remaining helium facility.

President Obama signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 into law on Oct. 2. The shutdown wouldn’t be over until Oct. 16, nearly two weeks later. The helium program continued.

The Cliffside facility is one of the last remnants of the Federal Helium Program, which purchased helium-rich natural gas from private companies and stored them in the porous rock about 12 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas and processed it through nearly half-a-dozen facilities.

The slow decline of the program belied its importance to national defense and scientific research. The government first began storing helium there in 1925 when airships were all the rage. But helium’s ability to super cool materials made it perfect for high-tech research and machinery (think MRI machines) and helped in critical missions within NASA and other agencies.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe (right after hydrogen) but it is incredibly hard to pull the gas from the air. The most common way to obtain helium is as a byproduct from natural gas drilling.

By 1960 the government had purchased about 34 billion cubic feet of helium rich natural gas from drillers and had stored it in what helium experts called “the dome” next to the Cliffside facility and had built about 420 miles of underground pipeline stretching from Texas to Kansas. Along the way were private helium refiners that use the Cliffside reserves to further purify the gas and then sell it.

In 1996 Congress passed a bill that would gradually phase out the reserve. That process was sped up by the Helium Privitzation Act of 1996 which set aggressive targets for the selling off of stored helium.

But the legislation passed on Oct. 2 did not reinvigorate a federal program in decline or breath into it new life. It merely stamped an official date on its death certificate.

There are now only about 10 billion cubic feet of helium left in Cliffside’s reserves, and the Bureau of Land Management projects it will sell but 3 billion by the time its new authorization expires on Sept. 30, 2021 and the privatization of helium storage will be complete.

By then the BLM will have made arrangements to sell all of the equipment, the facility and even the underground pipeline to a private company or companies, according to Robert Jolley, the Amarillo field office manager for BLM. He said the facility supplies about 32 percent of the world’s helium supply and around 42 percent of helium within the United States. But that won’t last much longer.

“Our supplies are dwindling and we are on the last few years of our capability, so those percentages are dropping,” he said.

But Jolley is grateful the facility has been given time to close, instead of being shut down immediately last year. The work would have stopped in its tracks and he is not sure what would have happened afterwards.

“We were sweating being laid off,” he said.

Once the equipment is under contract and the facility and its pipeline are handed over to a private company, what happens then? Jolly said the selling process will begin sometime in 2019 but will hopefully include some provisions that it will remain in BLM hands up until the last day of authorization.

“We will try to operate up until the very end if possible,” he said.

When is a wedding plan so awesome the Coast Guard gets involved?

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FireworksYou know your wedding day will be memorable when it triggers a series of environmental reviews and a proposed rule from the federal government.

That is definitely the case for a lucky person named “Ellie,’ whose planned wedding fireworks display on June 27 about 1.5 miles into the Long Island Sound near Greenwich, Conn., had to be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Because the fireworks will be launched from a barge in navigable waterways, the Coast Guard had to perform an environmental impact review and formally establish a temporary safety zone.

This temporary rule proposes to establish a safety zone for the Ellie’s Wedding fireworks display. This proposed regulated area includes all waters of Long Island Sound within a 600 foot radius of the fireworks barge located approximate 1.5 miles south of Greenwich Point Park in Greenwich, CT,” according to the proposed rule.

Of course, since it’s a proposed rule, you can still comment officially on it until May 15. I will be sending them my best wishes for a long-lasting relationship.

All the details and procedures were published on Regulations.gov as part of the rulemaking process, but as far as wedding announcements go, its very formal.

So congratulations Ellie on your wedding day. I hear your fireworks are going to be great.

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How many people get arrested at Burning Man? The answer will surprise you.

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A woman dances with fire during the final day of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada early 03 September 2000. The festival is a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during the week long event.  AFP PHOTO (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) Hector MATA

A woman dances with fire during the final day of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada early 03 September 2000. The festival is a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during the week long event. AFP PHOTO (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) Hector MATA

Every year at the end of August nearly 70,000 people descend on Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada to take part in the celebration of radical self expression known as Burning Man.

And for many people it’s synonymous with drug use and burning a giant wooden man in the middle of the desert. But according to the Bureau of Land Management — which has jurisdiction over government land and the Burning Man festival grounds in particular — the number of people cited or arrested is quite low for its size and duration.

In 2013 only 6 people out of 69,613 were arrested and 433 more were cited by law enforcement, according to statistics from BLM provided to the Government Attic. (Note: Government attic is a great resource for FOIAs and government info alike.) That covers the five days leading up to Burning Man, the event itself and five days afterward.

The size of the gathering would make it the 5th largest city in Nevada and in comparison crime at Burning is pretty low, according to Gene Seidlitz, manager for the Winnemucca district of the BLM.

Year Burning Man Pop. BLM officers Drug citations Total citations Arrests
2010 51,515 51 158 293 9
2011 53,735 51 218 376 8
2012 52,385 70 253 365 14
2013 69,613 70 309 433 6

He said while in its early days there were deaths and more arrests the event has evolved into a well-organized festival complete with proper permits and safety guidelines — especially for the fire events.

“Although there are arrests and injuries and in the past deaths I think this is a very safe event and managed well with good oversight by the BLM,” Seidlitz said.

The key to keeping the event organized and safe is the extensive communication between event organizers and the BLM, according to Eric Boik, state chief ranger for the BLM for Utah, which oversees the law enforcement activities of the event.

“It’s because we all get to the table and communicate frequently and the planning for this starts for 2014 in December so we are already working hot and heavy,” Boik said.

He added the event encourages self-reliance and all the festival participants clean up everything they bring with them as part of a “leave no trace” culture.

“Everything is cleaned up as if the event never occurred,” he said.

Burning Man continues to grow — from a few hundred people 30 years ago to 51,515 in 2010 and up to 69,613 in 2013. The 2014 festival has a permit for 70,000 people and that is probably the maximum the event can host, according to the BLM.

A man dances near a fire at Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA

A man dances near a fire at Black Rock City’s Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA

The agency worked on an environmental impact statement that put the maximum number of festival-goers — no including law enforcement or festival organizers — at 70,000, according to Seidlitz.

As for the wooden man that is burned every year?

“It’s quite a site,” Seidlitz said.

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Man at heart of $500 million contracting scandal arrested, charged with murder

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Braulio Castillo first became famous when he was the subject of a House investigation into how he parlayed a 30-year-old prep school ankle injury into getting $500 million in contracts in the form of a special service-disabled veteran status for his company Signet Computers.

He suffered the injury while attending the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School in 1984 but played football the next year at the University of San Diego. In 2012 he filed a claim with the Veterans Affairs office to get the special status as a service-disable veteran.

His special status helped get his company Signet Computers (renamed Strong Castle in 2013) contracts worth up to $500 million but also drew the scrutiny of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

But on April 1 the 43-year-old Castillo was arrested by the Loudon County Sheriff’s office and is being charged with the murder of his estranged wife. The charge is first-degree murder.

The victim, Michelle G. Castillo, was found dead in her home on March 20th by police checking on her wellbeing.

“During the investigation the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office executed multiple search warrants at two locations and conducted door-to-door canvasses throughout the area,” according to the Loudon County Sheriff’s office.

Once approved, the disability enabled Castillo’s company access to government set-asides through VA’s Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program.

Castillo told a VA examiner weighing the company’s application for entry into the special set-aside program about the “crosses I bear due to my service to our great country,” according to the House report.

He later told congressional investigators that his injury was debilitating over the years and that he’d had three foot fusions. Had Castillo completed his year at the preparatory school without injury, he wouldn’t have been considered a veteran, but a VA official told House investigators that cadets injured at school become veterans due to service-connected disability, the report said.

The House report also found Castillo’s newly purchased company had no experience with the IRS, but it still won lucrative information technology contracts worth up to $500 million in part because of its status as a HUBZone contractor and Castillo’s relationship with a top IRS contracting official.

Under Small Business Administration rules, a HUBZone, or Historically Underutilized Business Zone, designation gives contractors an edge in competing for federal work if they’re based in certain economically distressed areas.

Interior CIO steps down

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Sylvia Burns took over the reins Monday as Interior Department’s acting chief information officer, following Bernie Mazer’s decision to step down as CIO and retire this summer.

Mazer’s last day as CIO was March 28, but “the department has asked Bernie to stay on for several months to assist in the selection of a successor, in addition to advising on several time-sensitive and high priority projects,” Andrew Jackson, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, said in an email to employees. The department could not confirm Mazer’s new title.

Federal News Radio first reported Mazer’s departure and said  he will be retiring in July. Burns will serve as acting CIO until a permanent replacement is chosen.

In his email, Jackson highlighted several of Mazer’s accomplishments:

- Spearheaded DOI’s successful migration of widely-dispersed employees from 14 different legacy email systems to Google Apps for Government.

- Led the vision, development, and release of the $10 billion, 10-year DOI Foundation Cloud Hosting Services (FCHS) contract.

- Guided the implementation of DOI’s cloud-based Email Enterprise Records & Document Management System (eERDMS), enabling efficient big data management of documents and records. It’s the largest records and information management program in the federal government.

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HP, Oracle among companies in FedRAMP pipeline

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Century Link, HP and CA Technologies are among the companies with cloud solutions awaiting final approval under a governmentwide security program.
Specifically, these companies are working to obtain a  Joint Authorization Board Provisional Authorization for a specific cloud offering. That’s basically a seal of approval from an interagency board of chief information officers at the General Services Administration, Homeland Security and Defense departments, acknowledging that companies have met minimum federal standards for securing cloud solutions.
See a complete list of companies awaiting JAB approval here.
As required by the Federal Risk and Authorization program (FedRAMP), the cloud vendors first hired an independent assessment organization to review and validate that they implemented the security standards.
GSA is working with IT networking group Meritalk to make the FedRAMP process more transparent by providing data on the companies awaiting approval and the performance of independent assessment organizations.

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