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News Briefs: Jan. 14, 2013

Jan. 14, 2013 - 08:32AM   |  
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VA official resigns, another reassigned in response to conference scandal

A second senior official at the Veterans Affairs Department has resigned and another top executive has been reassigned in response to last year’s findings of wasteful spending at a 2011 conference.

VA confirmed to Federal Times on Tuesday that Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University, resigned over her role in organizing two lavish human resources training conferences in Orlando, Fla. The Washington Examiner first reported on Tuesday that Muellerweiss had resigned.

Tonya Deanes, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Human Resources Management, was also reassigned to other duties.

John Sepulveda, who was VA’s chief human capital officer, resigned Sept. 30, one day before the inspector general released a report showing that VA spent $6.1 million on the conferences and wasted $762,000 on video production, food and beverages, promotional items, audio-visual services and awards given to employees who mismanaged the conferences.

The IG concluded Sepulveda lied to investigators regarding his involvement in the production of a $50,000 video parodying the war movie “Patton” that was shown twice at the conferences. Eleven VA employees also improperly accepted gifts from contractors — such as free lodging, meals, Rockettes tickets, and limousine and helicopter rides — while planning the conferences, the IG concluded.

The report criticized Muellerweiss’ “lack of participation and apparent ignorance of what was taking place within her organization” and said there was little communication between Muellerweiss and Deanes during the planning stage of the conference.

The IG recommended VA take appropriate administrative action against Muellerweiss and Deanes.

Global Impact loses contract to run Washington-area CFC

Global Impact, the charity fundraiser that was harshly criticized last year for running up nearly $1.1 million in questionable spending, has lost its contract to run the Washington-area Combined Federal Campaign.

Global Impact ran the National Capital Area CFC from 2003 to 2012 as its Principal Combined Fund Organization, or PCFO. But it confirmed to Federal Times on Thursday that the Office of Personnel Management had chosen EarthShare to run the National Capital Area CFC in 2013.

In a statement to Federal Times, Global Impact did not comment on why the change was made. But OPM’s inspector general in March blasted Global Impact’s spending on the campaign as “extremely disturbing.”

The IG said Global Impact spent more than $764,000 on training and conferences, design and marketing services, luncheons and software that could have been put to better use, though auditors did not demand those funds be repaid.

But the IG demanded Global Impact repay another $308,820 in food, entertainment and travel expenses to the account used to distribute money to the charities, which Global Impact did. Nearly a third of the money OPM demanded be repaid — or $102,503 over three years — went to buy meals for loaned executives and National Capital Area CFC staff during routine CFC business.

OPM later returned $102,100 of the $308,820 to Global Impact after reviewing additional documentation and determining some of the expenses were allowable.

The IG also highlighted questionable spending by Global Impact, such as $11,315 for a campaign kickoff event at a 2007 Washington Nationals baseball game, $1,500 to hire Howard University’s jazz band to play at a 2007 leadership conference, $1,159 for a nighttime tour of Washington for loaned executives, and $680 for chair massages in 2007 and 2008.

Global Impact disputed most of the IG’s questionable spending findings and said it believed it was following the rules. For example, OPM gave the National Capital Area CFC an Innovator Award after the 2007 campaign and specifically cited the Washington Nationals event as an example of its creativity.

OPM said last year that an awards committee of regional campaign executives made that award decision, and that OPM did not know charity funds paid for the baseball game until the IG’s audit.

In its statement Thursday, Global Impact said annual revenue for the National Capital Area CFC increased from $47 million in 2003 to more than $64 million in 2011. Global Impact said it is still tallying final figures for the 2012 campaign, but has so far reached 97 percent of its $62 million goal.

26,500 postal clerks, drivers take buyout

About 26,500 U.S. Postal Service clerks, drivers and other career employees represented by the American Postal Workers Union took the agency’s latest early-out offer, according to figures released Wednesday.

The total represents 14 percent of the roughly 189,200 employees in that workforce who were eligible for the deal. It exceeds the 20,000, “plus or minus a few thousand,” USPS human resources chief Tony Vegliante said in October he was hoping would accept the offer.

The offer, which coupled a $15,000 buyout with an early retirement package for older employees, was one in a series launched last year to encourage USPS workers to leave as the Postal Service seeks to shed payroll.

While full-time workers had to accept by Dec. 3, the deadline for part-time employees was last Friday. Because the latter group can back out before their final Feb. 28 departure date, the final number of takers could still change, although any difference is likely to be small. Part-time workers can get a pro-rated share of the $15,000 buyout based on the number of hours worked in the last year.

The money will be paid in separate installments this May and May 2014.

Of the total number accepting the offer, 20,230 were already eligible for retirement, 5,917 took advantage of relaxed age and service requirement to retire early, and 352 resigned, according to the Postal Service.

EEOC: Black male employees at SSA owed millions in back pay

The Social Security Administration could have to pay millions of dollars in back pay to black male employees at its Baltimore headquarters following a ruling last month that it breached the terms of a 2002 class-action discrimination settlement.

In the ruling, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reaffirmed a 2011 decision that the agency had failed to comply with the settlement, which called for performance bonuses and quality step increases for the men.

The original suit, which was certified as a class action in 1998, claimed the black men were treated differently when it came to promotions, performance appraisals and performance awards and bonuses. In the 2002 settlement, the Social Security Administration agreed to pay about $6.4 million and ensure equal treatment in doling out performance bonuses and quality step increases in the future, according to the Dec. 18 decision by Carlton Hadden, director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations.

Although the agency paid out the money, a follow-up analysis in 2006 showed that the disparities continued, said Michael Kator, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. EEOC in its 2011 decision agreed that the Social Security Administration had failed to live up to the agreement and ordered it to pay retroactively all black men employed at SSA headquarters from April 2003 through September 2005 the average amount of bonuses and quality step increases given to the headquarters workforce as a whole during that period.

Although SSA attorneys asked the commission to reconsider, Hadden said the agency had not shown that the original decision was mistaken.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 past and present employees will likely be affected, said Kator, who projected that total damages awarded would ultimately add up to tens of millions of dollars.

In an email, SSA spokeswoman Kia Anderson said the agency disagreed with the ruling and would “defend its position” before the administrative judge who will decide the final amount. She declined further comment.

The judge has not yet scheduled an initial hearing, Kator said. He declined to predict how long it could take to settle the case for good.

“I’m sure the agency will have lots of arguments to make and they will do everything they can to mitigate this,” Kator said, “but the fact of the matter is they had an obligation under the settlement to fix the problem, and they didn’t.”

Retirement wave slows at year’s end

The retirement wave of federal employees started off strong in 2012, but slowed considerably toward the end of the year.

In all, 106,550 federal employees submitted retirement claims to the Office of Personnel Management last year. That is 1.7 percent above the 104,810 claims submitted in 2011, and 26 percent above the 84,427 retirements recorded in 2010.

For the first five months of 2012, the retirement rate looked as if it would be much higher. Between January and May, 49,277 federal employees submitted claims — 6.5 percent above the same period in 2011.

But from June to December, the number of retirements fell 2 percent year over year. In December, 5,152 employees submitted retirement claims — far less than the 7,000 OPM had expected, and a 27 percent decline from the 7,041 retirements in December 2011.

OPM also made considerable progress in processing new retirees’ pensions last year, finishing 2012 with a backlog of 26,402 unfinished claims. That is a 45 percent decline from the December 2011 backlog of 48,378, and a 57 percent decline from the 61,108-claim backlog in January 2012. OPM expected to have a backlog of 29,478 claims.

OPM processed 10,454 pension claims last month. That was better than what OPM was doing in the first half of 2012 — when it was processing an average 9,500 claims per month — but still below the roughly 12,000 claims it was processing each month, on average, from July to November.

While OPM is in a much better place than it was a year ago, this month is almost certain to set its claims processers back considerably. January always records the highest number of retirements, and last year, 21,479 feds submitted their claims. OPM expects another 21,000 to retire this month, and it expects to process 11,500 claims.

OPM has struggled for years to quickly process new retirees’ pension claims, and many wait for months to get their full payment. OPM Director John Berry last year made improving the process his top priority and put into place a plan that involved hiring more employees to process claims and streamlining the agency’s methods for preparing case files and answering customer service questions.

Army on track to meet contracting goal for energy projects

The Army is on track to meet its share of a governmentwide goal to award $2 billion in energy savings performance contracts (ESPCs) by the end of the year, according to top Army officials.

Under an ESPC project, the vendor pays the upfront investment for building renovations and retrofits in exchange for payments from the government’s energy savings over time. President Obama directed in December 2011 that agencies enter into $2 billion in energy savings performance contracts before the end of this year.

The Army has awarded $220 million worth of ESPCs under the directive so far and is on track to reach its goal of $384 million by the end of the year, according Richard Kidd, deputy assistant Army secretary for energy and sustainability.

In a Federal Times interview, he said the Army was able to reduce the time it takes to award a contract from more than 20 months to 14 months, and that accelerated pace has allowed the service to make rapid progress toward the goal.

Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said the Army has more than tripled its use of ESPCs over the last few years and picks its projects to get the maximum benefit it can while avoiding spending appropriated funds.

“We are not going to the American public and asking for money to do this. We are implementing only things that have a return on investment and that enables the private sector to invest in the base,” Hammack said.

The Army’s largest renewable energy project to date is installation of a four-megawatt solar field on a 42-acre tract at its White Sands Missile Complex in central New Mexico. The $16.8 million project, to be completed in December by Siemens Government Technologies Inc., will generate about 10 percent of the installation’s power.

GSA increases mileage reimbursement

Federal employees will be reimbursed 56.5 cents per mile — a one penny boost — for driving their own cars for federal business effective Jan. 1.

The increase matches that approved by the Internal Revenue Service for private-sector workers. The General Services Administration can set the rate for federal workers lower or can match it but cannot exceed it.

Reimbursement is up one penny to 24 cents per mile if an employee chooses to drive his own car when a government vehicle is available.

Motorcycle reimbursement will also increase by one cent to 53.5 per mile.

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