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News Briefs: March 18, 2013

Mar. 17, 2013 - 01:56PM   |  
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Justices present budget request

The 3 percent cut proposed in the Supreme Court’s $74.8 million budget request for 2014 is “unsustainable” over the long term and could force a decision to scale back its docket, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy said at a hearing last week.

“If you force that choice,” Kennedy told a House Appropriations subcommittee, “you are saying that the courts are not open.”

For the broader federal court system, Kennedy and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said the cuts would threaten the already-limited resources available to fund the public defender service for the indigent.

Breyer said maintenance of the public defense system was “absolutely crucial.”

“At some point,” Kennedy said, “we start discussing dismissing criminal prosecutions. This is dangerous to the rule of law.”

Because of the sequester, some federal courts may have to suspend civil jury trials in September if other options for managing across-the-board budget cuts fall short, Thomas Hogan, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in a recent letter to members of Congress.

In addition, the courts may have to lay off up to 2,000 employees or impose furloughs for one day per pay period, Hogan wrote. Throughout the court system, about 21,000 employees are vulnerable to furloughs or other cuts.

The sequester-related cuts will take almost $350 million — or 5 percent — out of the courts’ total budget this year, Hogan wrote.

Other likely measures include cuts to training, security system funding and the offices of federal attorneys who represent defendants.

Researcher: VA covered up vets’ health data

Veterans Affairs Department officials, aiming to prevent paying costly benefits, purposely manipulate or hide data that would support the claims of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, a former VA researcher told a House subcommittee last week.

“If the studies produce results that do not support the office of public health’s unwritten policy, they do not release them,” said Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist in VA’s public health department.

“This applies to data regarding adverse health consequences of environmental exposures, such as burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toxic exposures in the Gulf War,” Coughlin said. “On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible.”

Coughlin testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee that VA routinely minimizes research that would bolster the claims of veterans suffering from the series of symptoms associated with Gulf War illness, as well as health issues linked to exposure to large burn pits and dust in Iraq.

Coughlin’s allegations echo previous cases in which the VA was slow to respond to health problems in veterans, ranging from exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, to Gulf War illness, to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Victoria Davey, chief officer of the VA’s office of public health and environmental hazards, told the committee that veterans receive personalized, proactive care. She did not directly address critics’ accusations, and instead talked about the VA’s care for veterans and the “cutting-edge” research it has conducted.

Developer plans luxury condos in old heating plant

A developer plans to build luxury condos in the vacant federal heating plant in Washington’s pricy Georgetown area.

The $19.8 million online auction bid from Georgetown 29K LLC was accepted by the General Services Administration last week.

GSA had been under pressure from lawmakers to dispose of the property.

The heating plant auction opened Jan. 18, with a soft closing date of Feb. 19, but because of enthusiastic bidding, the auction continued for two more weeks.

Once GSA receives the bid from Georgetown 29K, it will transfer ownership of the building within 100 days.

OPM to update SF 86 clearance application

The Office of Personnel Management wants to update the form federal employees use to apply for security clearances — to recognize civil unions and domestic partnerships and to clarify federal law in light of Colorado’s recent decision to loosen its marijuana laws.

OPM in a March 12 Federal Register notice seeks comments on changes to Standard Form 86 (SF 86).

OPM wants to rename the section currently called “marital status” to “marital/relationship status” and require applicants to report information on their legally recognized civil unions and domestic partnerships or the dissolution of those relationships.

OPM also wants to update the section on illegal drug use to clarify that any drug activity outlawed by the federal government must be reported, even if the activity is legal under state or local law. Colorado voters last year passed a ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana use, although the federal government still outlaws the drug.

The government will accept comments on the proposed changes until May 13.

Science agencies mixed record on openness

Despite the Obama administration’s promise of greater openness, federal science agencies continue to have mixed records on allowing researchers to communicate freely, according to a new scorecard from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Of 17 agencies rated, just three — the Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — endorsed scientists’ right to speak to the media in their personal capacity and to have final review on agency materials that rely heavily on their work, the nonpartisan organization found.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration ranked lowest because its parent agency, the Labor Department, has a scientific integrity policy that emphasizes “controlling agency message” over promoting transparency, the scorecard said.

Best Buy also ends ROWE flex scheduling

The Results-Only Work Environment Program — an experimental flexible scheduling program the federal government unsuccessfully tested — suffered another blow earlier this month when it was canceled at Best Buy.

Best Buy in 2005 pioneered the ROWE program, which gives employees complete control to decide when and where they work, as long as they get all their duties done. But CNN reported March 5 that the struggling retailer, now under new management, had decided to end the program. Best Buy employees will still be able to telework or set flexible schedules as long as they get permission from their managers.

OPM in 2010 launched its own ROWE experiment, and Director John Berry hoped it might ultimately spread throughout the federal government. But by 2012, OPM had abandoned the project.

FBI HQ consolidation would cut leasing costs

The FBI would save $44 million in leasing costs annually by consolidating its offices at a new headquarters, according to a top agency official.

About 5,000 FBI employees work in 20 leased spaces across the Washington area, Kevin Perkins, associate deputy director at the FBI, told lawmakers at a House subcommittee hearing last week. Another 5,000 work at the headquarters building, which is old, inefficient and not able to meet basic requirements such as security, he said.

“The dispersal of employees has created significant challenges in facilitating organizational change, sharing information and in administrative functions,” Perkins said.

The General Services Administration has proposed exchanging the current FBI headquarters for a new 2.1 million-square-foot facility in the Washington area.

Union says no to knives, bats on planes

American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox wants the Transportation Security Administration to reverse its decision to allow airline passengers to carry on small knives, bats and other items.

“TSA has created a situation where [transportation security officers] will be required to discern the length and width of a knife blade in a very short period of time,” he said in a news release. “Disagreements over the TSAs’ determination as to whether the knife will be allowed through checkpoints may result in a confrontation.”

The “ambiguous” new policy will escalate such incidents, he said.

$231K payout in sexual harassment case

The National Guard must pay a former employee more than $231,000 after failing to adequately investigate her complaint of repeated sexual harassment.

Vikki Rouleau had been a GS-9 technician with the District of Columbia National Guard stationed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. She resigned in November 2010 following a co-worker’s “numerous unwanted advances,” according to the Feb. 28 ruling by Judge David Norkin of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Although Rouleau reported the harassment while still with the Guard, the agency’s EEO director failed to explain her right to file a formal complaint. After being reassigned to clerical duties, she also felt that she was being punished for speaking up, according to a summary of the proceedings in Norkin’s ruling.

When Rouleau filed a formal complaint in August 2011, the Guard bumbled its investigation to the point that it was “as good as useless,” Norkin wrote in an earlier decision that found the agency liable for damages.

The Guard can appeal the decision.

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