Lawmakers assail DHS personnel, grants practices

Democrats on a House panel on Thursday asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to explain why they were not told that a high-ranking personnel official had tendered his resignation days before testifying about staffing woes.

Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., said the resignation of K. Gregg Prillaman, DHS' chief human capital officer, also creates doubt surrounding the department's planned personnel reforms.

Prillaman told the department on May 15 about his plans to resign, but Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee said that three days later, he testified at a hearing without notifying them of his upcoming departure. DHS initially declined to confirm reports of his resignation, they said.

"It appears that the department's human capital system is in critical condition, possessing neither steady, seasoned leadership nor clearly defined goals," the representatives wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Chertoff.

"The report of Mr. Prillaman's impending resignation is disturbing not only because it raises issues about the department's commitment to addressing attrition and morale issues but also because it further underscores the need for a proven human capital system."

Thompson and Meek grouped Prillaman's resignation with "several unfavorable court decisions" and decreased congressional appropriations as bad omens for the agency's new personnel system, which among other reforms, will base annual pay raises on performance ratings. The letter also criticized the performance system's evaluation process, citing a Government Accountability Office report that lawmakers said called the evaluations "highly questionable."

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said Friday the letter makes it "crystal clear to everyone that the personnel system has been in critical condition for some time, and should be scrapped."

The Democrats also asked how DHS will confront "severely decreased appropriations" for its new personnel system. Prillaman, in a speech earlier this week, said DHS was surprised by employees' negative reaction to the implementation of the new system.

DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie would not comment directly on the letter, except to say the department will respond "in a timely fashion." The letter called for a written response by mid-June.

Orluskie said an acting director will be named in Prillaman's place next week, and will serve until a presidential appointment is made for the position. Prillaman will leave June 9.

The House Government Reform Committee also plans to question DHS officials later this month on the separate issue of grants allocations. The panel will call officials to testify as early as mid-June, a source said.

The grants allocations, which were announced earlier this week, brought drastic cuts for many state and local anti-terror and disaster preparedness programs, including those in New York City and Washington, D.C. Available funds went from $2.5 billion last fiscal year to $1.7 billion this year.

In a separate letter to Chertoff also sent June 1, Thompson criticized the reductions, calling it unconscionable that New York, Boston and Washington received significantly less than last year. "I simply do not understand the grant-funding game that the department is playing with America's security," he wrote.

Karen Rutzick contributed to this report.

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