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News Digest: June 17

Jun. 16, 2013 - 01:45PM   |  
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EEOC orders DEA to address bias against female agents

The Drug Enforcement Administration must take immediate steps to stop discrimination against female special agents seeking assignments abroad, under a new decision in a long-running class-action lawsuit.

“The record is replete with evidence of rampant discrimination towards female SAs both in the selection process for foreign positions and in the workplace in general,” Carlton Hadden, director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Federal Operations, said in the June 7 ruling.

As part of a remedy plan, DEA must identify barriers to female agents within the agency, determine the cause of those barriers and lay out plans to eliminate them, Hadden said. The agency must also provide retroactive promotions and back pay to female agents passed over for foreign postings between 1990 and 1992, along with compensatory damages of up to $300,000 for each.

Michael Kator, an attorney for the plaintiffs, estimated the class size at 200 to 250 active and retired agents. Damages, including back pay, could run into tens of millions of dollars, he said.

But DEA pegs the number at fewer than 100, spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said in an email that described the agency as now dedicated “to promoting an inclusive work environment where individual differences are understood, respected and valued.”

As an example, Dearden pointed to Administrator Michele Leonhart, who started as an entry-level agent in 1980 and now heads the agency. DEA officials, who have 30 days to request reconsideration of Hadden’s decision, are still reviewing it, Dearden said.

As part of its mission to combat illegal drug trafficking, DEA maintains a large foreign footprint, with offices in dozens of countries.

The case dates back to 1993 when Ann Garcia, then a GS-13 agent in DEA’s Denver field office, filed the class discrimination complaint after being passed over for jobs in Thailand, Brazil, Greece and other overseas locations, according to a recounting in Hadden’s ruling.

In one instance, Garcia sought a permanent posting in Curacao after working there temporarily. Although she had the backing of a top official from the Caribbean island nation, the job went to a lower-graded male agent with five years less experience, the ruling said.

Another agent who applied for a foreign assignment was told that women should be home having babies, according to the ruling, while a third unsuccessful applicant was told that women were considered second-class citizens in Asian and Muslim counties, so DEA “would probably choose men for those positions.”

While Garcia retired in 2008, Hadden said she should be retroactively assigned to the Curacao job and receive back pay associated with that promotion up to her retirement date.

DOE made $450,000 in questionable payments to former lawmaker's firm

A former congresswoman’s consulting business reaped almost a half-million dollars from the Energy Department for questionable work, according to a new inspector general’s audit.

Officials at two of the department’s facilities — Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Nevada National Security Site — said there were “no deliverables” associated with their payments to former Rep. Heather Wilson’s company, Heather Wilson and Co., according to the report.

In all, the company received more than $450,000 in payments from four Energy Department facilities.

Information provided by the company to auditors to document the services provided to the department “did not meet even minimum standards for satisfying [Federal Acquisition Regulation] requirements,” the inspector general said in the audit.

The former Republican congresswoman served in the House from 1998 to 2009, giving up her seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate. In April, she was named president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where she is scheduled to take office next week, according to the school’s website. Wilson did not return a phone message left Tuesday at the school.

Under a January 2009 agreement with Sandia National Laboratories, Wilson was to provide advice on strategic objectives and other areas to leaders at the New Mexico-based facility, which is run by a Lockheed Martin subsidiary. But while Sandia made almost $226,400 in government-reimbursed payments to the company over the next two years, the invoices from Wilson’s firm lacked detail on the services provided or the time spent doing the work, the auditors said.

It was a similar story at Los Alamos National Laboratory, also headquartered in New Mexico. Los Alamos National Security, the contractor running the facility, was reimbursed about $195,700 from 2009 to 2011 for payments made to the Wilson firm, despite a lack of evidence of deliverables and detailed invoices” to support the allowability of payments to the company, according to the audit.

Another $30,000 in payments came from Oak Ridge and the Nevada site.

The Energy Department has recovered almost $443,000 from the contractors running the four facilities and is reviewing the allowability of the remainder, according to the audit.

The IG faulted the contractors both for failing to draft the consulting agreements in accord with FAR requirements and for not making sure the government got value for its money.

In addition, federal officials “could have followed up to ensure previously identified problems were corrected, but did not do so,” the audit said.

Federal workforce dips 20 percent since May 2010 peak

The total federal workforce dropped by 14,000 employees in May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said June 7, bringing the government’s staffing levels to its lowest point in more than five years.

May’s decline means federal payrolls — including U.S. Postal Service workers — have now dropped by 45,000 over the last three months. There are now 2,748,000 federal employees in the government — the lowest since February 2008, when there were 2,747,000 federal workers. The federal workforce has now fallen 20 percent since its peak in May 2010, when there were 3,415,000 employees.

Non-postal federal workers dropped by 9,400 last month, bringing its 2.1 million-employee workforce to its lowest level since November 2009. And the Postal Service’s workforce dropped by 3,800 last month to 584,600 — it’s lowest point in at least a decade.

Budget crunches are primarily behind the swift decline in federal staffing. Most federal agencies are scrambling to enact swift spending cuts known as the sequester, and many have frozen hiring to give themselves more budget room. And several agencies — including the flailing Postal Service — have offered buyouts and early retirements in recent years to reduce their payroll.

White House suspends Presidential Rank Awards

The White House this year will not issue Presidential Rank Awards, which carry bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars to selected executives and senior-level professionals,an administration official confirmed to Federal Times Wednesday.

In a statement, an administration official said that “in light of the reduced budgetary resources, expending funds on employee performance awards at this time would in many circumstances not be the most effective way to protect agency mission.”

The White House is encouraging agencies to find other ways to recognize exceptional performance, without handing out cash bonuses. Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Elaine Kaplan issued a memo Tuesday extending the nomination period for the rank awards to Friday, even though President Obama will not be issuing any awards. OPM is required by law to solicit those nominations, but the White House said the nominations could help the administration find exceptional executives whom it can recognize in nonmonetary ways.

The Senior Executives Association objected to the White House’s decision, and said the rank awards are required by law. SEA President Carol Bonosaro said it is shortsighted to sacrifice a program that rewards excellence in government, especially since rank award winners often save taxpayers billions of dollars.

“At such a challenging time, we need the kind of executives exemplified by the Presidential Rank Awards, and we cannot afford yet another action which chips away at the few remaining attractors for service in the career executive corps,” Bonosaro said.

SAIC to pay $11.75M settlement in inflated billings case

Science Applications International Corp., one of the federal government’s largest contractors, has agreed to pay $11.75 million to settle accusations that it inflated bills under federal grants to train anti-terrorism first responders, the Justice Department said Thursday.

Three federal agencies awarded the six grants to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology between 2002 to 2012, and in turn the school awarded “subgrants“ to SAIC to provide management, instruction and development, authorities said.

Kenneth Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, said in a statement announcing the settlement that the company’s cost proposals included inflated charges for personnel. The settlement came after a False Claims Act lawsuit filed by SAIC’s former project manager for the first responder program, Richard Priem.

“If SAIC has been honest and charged the government based on its true costs, additional funds would have been available to train more first responders,” Peter Chatfield, an attorney for Priem, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for SAIC declined to comment on the case.

Postal Service agrees to class-action discrimination settlement

The U.S. Postal Service will pay almost $17.3 million to settle allegations of discrimination against employees with disabilities.

The class-action complaint covers some 41,000 past and current Postal Service workers whose work hours may have been restricted from 2000 through last year because of permanent disabilities. The complaint charged that the practice violated the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which bars federal agencies from discriminating against disabled employees.

In the settlement, which received preliminary approval from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative judge last month, the agency denied wrongdoing, but said it wanted to avoid the expense of continued litigation.

Out of the total settlement amount, John Mosby, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and other lawyers representing the class will split about $4.3 million and could also recoup up to another $750,000 in expenses, subject to approval by the judge and the Postal Service.

While the remainder averages out to about $300 per employee, it is unclear how much each will actually receive. The final amount will hinge on several factors, including how many people file claims, according to a ‘frequently asked questions” section on the website detailing the settlement.

Mosby could not be reached for comment.

Although the settlement still needs final approval from the EEOC, members of the class are supposed to get formal notification of the agreement next week.

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