Democratic leadership on the House Oversight and Reform Committee wants answers from senior Trump administration officials after the Project on Government Oversight reported that a copy of notes they obtained from an April 2019 call contradicted testimony officials had given about the planned merger of the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.
The plan to move most of OPM’s functions under GSA was first proposed in the administration’s June 2018 reorganization plan and received significant backlash from federal employee groups and members of Congress as an attempt to cut back on civil service protections.
Critics also questioned the legality of the move, and lawmakers used provisions in the most recent government funding bills to specifically prohibit any use of agency funding to facilitate a merger or transfer of functions.
Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert says doing nothing could impact Office of Personnel Management operations more than the Trump administration’s plan to split off its pieces.
According to the notes uncovered by the Project on Government Oversight, Stephen Engel, the head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, told legal representatives from OPM, GSA and the Office of Management and Budget that the administration lacked the legal authority to execute its plans.
“This OLC legal opinion apparently was rendered months before two hearings before the subcommittee in which OPM and OMB officials were asked explicitly for any legal advice they received regarding the proposed elimination of OPM,” Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wrote in letters to OPM, OMB, DOJ and GSA leadership.
“This new information raises questions about whether former Deputy Director of Management of OMB and former Acting Director of OPM Margaret Weichert, as well as then-OPM Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Billy, misled Congress when they concealed this meeting, this legal advice, and these notes.”
The administration plans to use current authorities to begin transferring responsibilities from the Office of Personnel Management to the General Services Administration, but action by Congress would simplify the process.
The letters request that GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, GSA General Counsel Jack St. John, OPM acting Director Michael Rigas, OMB Senior Advisor Stephen Billy and OPM General Counsel Mark Robbins participate in transcribed interviews about the reported phone call with the Office of Legal Counsel and the accuracy of officials’ testimony as to whether they had consulted legal advice on the planned merger.
Members of Congress asked OPM officials at a May 2019 hearing and again at a June 2019 hearing to produce the legal analysis for the merger in response to a document request that Connolly made of the agency in March of that year.
At the first hearing, Weichert stated that some categories of documents were still in the deliberative process, and therefore not shareable at the time. At the second hearing, Billy testified that attorneys were working across the involved agencies to finalize the legal authorities.
Then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told witnesses at the June hearing that citing an ongoing deliberative process “is not a legitimate reason for you to withhold documents.”
After the Project on Government Oversight issued the report, OPM released a statement noting that the Office of Legal Counsel “never issued an opinion prohibiting the proposed reorganization of GSA and OPM.”
But Connolly and Maloney wrote that this response was equally “misleading” as the Office of Legal Counsel providing a legal opinion on a call is still just as responsive to the committee’s request for legal reasoning as a formal report would have been.
The letters request that the relevant officials be made available for transcribed interviews no later than July 14, and ask that the OPM Office of Inspector General investigate the reported call and its relevance to official testimony.