Another Agency Head Asks Congress for More Firing Authority

DEA chief Michelle Leonhart said civil service statutes prevent her from interfering with the disciplinary process. DEA chief Michelle Leonhart said civil service statutes prevent her from interfering with the disciplinary process. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file photo

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday relentlessly grilled the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration about the sexual misconduct of her agents and the lack of discipline they received, with several House members questioning her fitness to lead the organization.

DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart -- who has worked in the agency for 35 years -- defended her leadership to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, saying she had no control over the punishment the agents received. Civil service statutes, she argued, prohibited her from interfering with the disciplinary process.

A recent report from the Justice Department’s inspector general found “systemic issues” within the agency that led to foreign DEA agents participating in “sex parties” with prostitutes funded by local drug cartels. The IG also found problematic enforcement of sexual harassment policies at DEA and the FBI, and that employees involved in harassment and the sex parties received suspensions rather than terminations.

Leonhart said the discipline for malfeasant employees is determined by the agency’s board of conduct and two “deciding officials.” Lawmakers repeatedly criticized that process, stating Leonhart did not have control over her own agency and that civil service laws would likely need to be changed.

The DEA administrator welcomed those proposals, saying she would appreciate an exemption from certain laws that would allow her to deal directly with the employees without internal or external review panels, such as the Merit Systems Protection Board.

“If you looked at giving us same the exemption as FBI I think we would then be able to make sure the penalties would be appropriate,” Leonhart said. “I think this is outrageous behavior, and without having to be concerned with appeal rights and sustaining it in MSPB, some of the behavior would rise to the level of removal.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., typically a staunch defender of federal employees and their due process rights, embraced potential tweaks to DEA’s firing authority.

“I didn’t think this would be necessary, but we may have to change Title V to hold you accountable,” Lynch said. “Right now you can just pass it off.” He cited preliminary legislative language dealing with “criminal conduct that interferes with an agency’s ability to do its mission” as an outline for how Congress could make it easier to terminate employees. He also hinted at giving agencies additional authority to “claw back” pensions and salaries for individuals who violated the law.

“It’s a shame we have to get to this,” Lynch said, “but I think that’s where we are now.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee’s chairman, said the DEA agents compromised national security and essentially were rewarded with a vacation, albeit unpaid. He added Leonhart owed it to the vast majority of DEA agents who do their jobs well to fire “bad apples.”

“It is incumbent upon the leadership of these law enforcement agencies to weed out employees who put our security at risk, embarrass the country and break the law,” Chaffetz said.

Leonhart repeatedly told the committee she too was “offended” by the actions of her workforce.

“Like you I am disgusted,” she said. “I am appalled by the behavior described in the report.” She added she has since “put mechanisms in place” to ensure that while she remains removed from the disciplinary process, more severe punishments are inflicted upon those found guilty of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Chafftez remained incredulous, saying her “mechanism” -- which consisted of sending out a memorandum last year to employees saying the behavior was unacceptable, similar to a memo Attorney General Eric Holder sent out last week -- did not go far enough.

“You may cry in the mirror but you were in a position to do it and you didn’t,” Chaffetz said. “It’s an embarrassment you don’t fire that person. It’s an embarrassment you don’t revoke that person’s security clearance.”

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., took his criticism a step further.

“I have serious questions about your competence, quite frankly,” Hice said. “It appears to me we need to seriously consider new leadership at the DEA.” Democrats on the panel, such as the ranking member Elijah Cummings, Md., and Rep. Ted Lieu, Calif., also asked Leonhart if she thought she was fit to lead the agency.

Both the FBI and DEA were also criticized for their failures to cooperate with the IG’s investigation, further drawing the ire of committee members.

The agencies “impeded and obstructed our ability to move forward in a timely matter,” Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz said. “I think in this instance we were obstructed.”

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