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News Digest: May 9

May. 8, 2011 - 09:18AM   |  
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Former Special Counsel Bloch sues fed officials

Former Special Counsel Scott Bloch on April 25 filed a racketeering lawsuit against current and former federal officials, alleging a conspiracy to destroy his reputation and force him out of his job.

Bloch is suing Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, former OPM Director Linda Springer, OPM General Counsel Elaine Kaplan, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, the National Treasury Employees Union and others.

Bloch said in the suit that an investigation into whistleblower retaliation and destruction of evidence was trumped up to derail his investigation of former General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan and former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. who are also named as defendants and into lax aircraft oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and aviation industry. Bloch said aviation industry lobbyists and the Republican National Committee worked together to disrupt his investigations of Doan and Davis, who he said illegally diverted campaign and contracting funds to Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates.

The suit is filed in Fairfax Circuit Court in Virginia. Bloch is demanding $202 million in punitive and other damages. OPM declined to comment. The website Courthouse News Service posted the lawsuit online.

Bloch pled guilty in April 2010 to a misdemeanor charge of contempt of Congress for wiping his laptop computer's memory clean while he was being investigated for retaliating against employees. He was sentenced to one month in prison and one year of probation in March.

Bill promises help for deployed civilians

The 2012 Defense authorization bill would require the Pentagon to assign a care coordinator to civilian employees to help them get medical treatment after serving in a combat zone.

The bill, HR 1540, said the Defense Department's post-combat care coordinators should help deployed civilians "wade through bureaucratic red tape" to get medical treatment and benefits.

"The committee remains concerned about the benefits provided to DoD civilian employees deployed to combat zones," the House Armed Services Committee said in a May 3 statement. "Federal civilian employees are increasingly providing important support in contingency operations, and many are experiencing serious medical problems upon returning to their regular assignments."

The bill would also extend for two years the authorization of premium pay for deployed civilians.

Two bipartisan groups working to cut deficit

As the White House kicked off budget talks with members of Congress last week, a bipartisan group of six senators was still seeking to come up with a long-term deficit reduction plan.

"They will continue to meet and try to reach a consensus next week," Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said late last week. Warner is one of the so-called "Gang of Six." Other members include Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The group has been striving for months to craft a deficit reduction plan; political observers have viewed its work as the best chance for forging a deal that could win congressional approval.

Those talks face competition from a separate effort led by Vice President Joe Biden, who huddled May 5 with another bipartisan group of lawmakers on ways to meet President Obama's goal of cutting deficits by some $4 trillion by fiscal 2023.

Pay freeze unlikely to hurt retention, official says

The Homeland Security Department's chief human capital officer said last week he doubts a two-year freeze on federal employees' pay scales will drive many to leave the government.

"I don't think we're going to see a mass exodus," Jeff Neal told the Human Capital Management-Federal conference in Washington May 4. "They didn't come there for the money. And the fact that they're not going to get a 1.6 percent pay increase this year is not going to drive them out the door."

Neal expects to see "an uptick in turnover" from some employees near retirement age, whose pensions will not increase much due to the freeze of General Schedule pay scales. But that will probably mean some people retire one year from now, instead of two, he said.

Neal said his opinions are based on a "gut feeling" that employees are not going to make major career changes over what amounts to a few hundred dollars a year. And the continuation of step increases will lessen discouragement, he said.

"Are they really going to leave for 700 bucks?" Neal said. "I don't think they will."

Bill authorizes $130M for DoD energy projects

The Defense Department would receive $130 million to fund alternative and renewable energy projects, according to provisions of the 2012 Defense authorization bill under consideration in the House.

The proposed legislation would require the Navy to install smart meters on piers to monitor the energy use of docked ships and also would allocate $9 million for an experimental Marine forward operating base to test new technologies.

Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, said the money would help reduce foreign oil dependence.

VA, Treasury semifinalists for Harvard awards

Two federal programs are among the Top 25 Innovations in Government, named last week by the Ash Center at Harvard's Kennedy School.

They are:

The Veterans Affairs Department's "IntegratedEthics" program, a model for improving ethics being implemented throughout the department.

The Treasury Department's New Markets Tax Credit Program, which provides tax incentives to promote private-sector investment in distressed communities.

Five finalists and one winner of the Innovations in American Government Award will be announced in the fall.

Finalists announced for Service to America awards

Bill Guerin, assistant commissioner for project delivery at the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service, obligated $5.5 billion in stimulus funding and came in more than $565 million under budget.

That extra money was recycled back into the construction of energy-efficient buildings and sustainable projects.

The Partnership for Public Service chose Guerin and 33 other federal employees as finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said recent budget battles have obscured the achievements of federal workers.

"That's why the Service to America Medals are so important they showcase the good that our public servants do each and every day," Stier said in a statement.

The 34 finalists are up for awards in nine categories, including federal employee of the year. Winners will be announced Sept. 15.

Navy sets IT efficiency goals

The Navy has slated at least 13 data centers for closure and is working to shed more light on information technology investments as part of a two-year strategic plan to improve efficiency.

In the plan released last week, Navy Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen outlined four goals: Make cyber operations and the management of information and technology more efficient, protect sensitive data, attract and retain a highly skilled workforce, and ensure all investments support the enterprise.

The Navy will base performance on the percent of systems that are compliant with Federal Information Security Management Act standards and the percent of certified personnel.

Performance measurement is OPM priority

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said that finding a way to accurately measure employees' performance is his highest priority.

Speaking May 4 before federal human resources officials, Berry said the government must improve its performance management processes before it can even consider linking employees' pay raises to performance.

He said the government currently does a poor job assessing how well employees do their jobs.

"We know from the employee survey, our employees don't believe we have a really good program," Berry said. "Our managers don't believe it. And the public doesn't believe it."

Berry said he hopes to have a reform plan later this year, and thinks existing laws give the government enough flexibility to strengthen performance management.

New system fails to speed disability evaluations

A new system designed to speed up disability evaluations for wounded and injured service members is proving less speedy than envisioned, according to government auditors.

The timeliness of evaluations a collaboration between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments has worsened significantly since August, said Daniel Bertoni, director of education, workforce and income security issues for the Government Accountability Office.

Bertoni, who testified at a May 4 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's national security panel, said active-duty cases are taking an average of 394 days to go from initial referral to receipt of VA benefits 99 days longer than the 295-day goal that was generally being met in February 2010.

The biggest challenge to faster processing, Bertoni said, is insufficient staffing by both VA and DoD at sites that are using the new system.

Lawmakers reacted to the GAO assessment with dismay. "At some point, somebody's got to say, wait a minute, these people are suffering now, not yesterday," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Panel: Privatize military's overseas mail delivery

The military's overseas postal service remains stuck in the 20th century.

Mail going overseas is sorted by hand, often dumped into a duffel bag or onto a wooden pallet and then sorted by hand again perhaps several times before it ends up in the recipient's mailbox, if it ends up there at all.

About one-third of military mail ultimately is undeliverable, returned to its sender through the same, slow process.

The military could speed things up and save millions of dollars by privatizing the overseas mail operations with a civilian-run company, according to a Pentagon advisory board.

The Defense Business Board formally recommended the change last month.

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