Obama Political Appointee ‘Burrows’ Into Permanent Job at VA

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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An Obama administration political appointee has “burrowed” into a high-level career civil service job at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), highlighting efforts by backers of the outgoing chief executive to implant themselves permanently into the federal bureaucracy in the waning months of his presidency.

Gina Farrisee was named deputy of chief of staff of the VA earlier this month, thus complicating the next president’s VA secretary’s ability to choose his own inner circle but securing high and continuing pay for Farrisee, whose job otherwise would have ended this year.

[dcquiz] Burrowing refers to politically appointed government employees who transfer to career civil service jobs that allow them to continue working long after the politician who appointed them has completed his term in office. It’s traditionally regarded as highly improper, because the career civil service is not supposed to reward political connections and is supposed to select new hires on merit-based competition. The VA did not advertise the deputy-chief job and would not say if other candidates were interviewed.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is tasked with ensuring that political henchmen don’t entrench themselves in the final year of a presidency, but it granted a special exception for Farrisee, even though the appointment has all the hallmarks of blatant burrowing, and it is unclear that her case would have met the guidelines used in determining waivers in the few cases that are granted.

OPM officials claimed it is partially up to the human resources head of an agency to make sure political appointees aren’t inappropriately burrowing, despite the fact the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 explicitly makes it ultimately OPM’s responsibility to insure the integrity of the civil service hiring process. In this case, Farrisee was that HR head.

The VA hired Farrisee shortly after she was pushed out of the Army for trying to cover up the friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman. Farrisee, a brigadier general, received a letter of reprimand, which is regarded in the Army as a career death knell.

She left the Army in October 2012 and in July 2013 began work at VA as deputy assistant secretary for human resources. That made her a probationary career Senior Executive Service employee. But only three months into that job, before she was became a tenured career executive, she became an Obama political appointee, serving as assistant secretary for HR.

The VA appears to have a fast and loose attitude towards political versus career jobs.

Deputy chief of staff jobs are typically regarded as key slots in an agency head’s inner circle of aides, making it best suited for a political classification. The position has been vacant for some time with no apparent harm, and if it was left vacant just a few months longer, the next VA secretary would have been able to appoint somebody of his own choosing. Instead, he will be saddled with an Obama administration holdover who likely will be given only token duties or transferred somewhere else in VA.

Meanwhile, replacing Farrissee as head of HR is Meghan Flanz, previously head of VA’s accountability office. The HR role is a political appointee slot, whereas Flanz’ was a career slot. It is unlikely that Flanz would have taken a political appointment so late in the administration, but the VA refused to explain her appointment status.

Farrisee is getting the plum job as deputy chief of staff even though her tenure as head of HR has been marked by dysfunction in VA’s management of personnel issues — with bad employees often being promoted, and the VA admitting that it has been unable to fire people for misconduct. The VA has also been criticized for not being forthcoming with Congress and the media about disciplinary actions —something Farrisee’s Army record didn’t help.

Farrisee was the face of the VA advocating for bonuses for senior executives at a time when veterans were being mistreated. Generous bonuses for high-level employees based on manipulated appointment wait-time metrics have been at the center of the continuing VA scandal.

Farrisee did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

TheDCNF pointed out that the job solicitation was never advertised, and asked if any other candidates had been interviewed. VA spokesman James Hutton said simply, “There is no requirement to advertise when reassigning career Senior Executive Service personnel.”

In a January 2016 memo warning of the dangers of personnel moves in a presidential election year, OPM wrote that “Agencies must seek prior approval from OPM before appointing a current or recent political appointee to a competitive or non-political excepted service position.”

When deciding whether a presidential appointee can move into a career civil service job, OPM officials consult a checklist designed to show that there was healthy competition and not favoritism. It requires:

  • “The job opportunity announcement(s) published on the USAJOBS web site”
  • “A description of recruiting sources and advertising methods used in addition to USAJOBS”
  • “Complete application packages from all applicants”
  • “Documentation on the interview process”
  • “The names of rating/ranking panel members”

Officials at VA claimed OPM approved Farrisee’s conversion but an OPM spokesman refused to confirm that the approval was given.

Improper burrowing “results in a less qualified civil service” and “hinders the incoming executive’s right to impartially hire career personnel,” lawyer Lauren Mendolera wrote in a law journal article titled “How to Stop a Mole: A Look at Burrowing in the Federal Civil Service.”

“Such conversions allow the exiting executive to exert power over the incoming administration and agency personnel without abiding by the safeguards established by Congress over the last thirty years,” Mendolera wrote. “Examples of ways that burrowers violate Title V include: not adequately posting the job advertisement to reach a broad audience of candidates.”

The Army reprimand Farrisee received for her role in the Pat Tillman scandal said that doctors told her Tillman was not killed by enemy fire, but Farrisee gave the impression that the football star died heroically in battle anyway.

“You would have also been in a position to advise the Acting Secretary of the fratricide investigation … you feel that in the absence of receiving something official in writing … you had no requirement to do anything… True, but this misses the point. The exercise of judgment, especially at the general officer level, requires we understand the bigger picture and seek to do what is right,” the reprimand said.

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