Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, requested more information.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, requested more information. Andrew Harnik/AP

Senator Wants to Know More About Homeland Security's Use of Paid Leave

Grassley asks Johnson for data on such issues as medical conditions, threats to staff.

This story has been updated. 

Though Homeland Security has made strides in curbing overuse of paid administrative leave for employees accused of misconduct, the department needs to provide Congress with greater detail on individual cases, according to a request from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

In a June 23 letter to Secretary Jeh Johnson, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee said the department’s responses to inquiries over the past year have failed to provide such key details as duration of leave, specific medical conditions that prevent an employee from working and the reasoning behind a determination that an employee’s presence at work would threaten co-workers.

“Without collecting this information, it is unclear how the department is conducting appropriate oversight over the use of extended administrative leave by its components and ensuring that components are taking appropriate actions to curtail the use of such leave consistent with” Office of Personnel Management guidance, Grassley wrote in the letter.

The senator also demanded more background on the decision to put Kelly Hoggan, deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, on long-term leave before he was dismissed this May.

Grassley made waves last fall responding to a report showing that DHS had as many as 88 employees on paid leave pending investigations at a cost of $14.5 million. And the Government Accountability Office this March followed up with a report putting the number at 100 over four years and blamed inadequate management procedures.

DHS responded to Grassley in a Feb. 22 letter reporting that 85 of those employees were no longer on paid leave, just days after the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill Grassley co-sponsored that would limit agency use of administrative leave.

Grassley’s latest letter says a new set of 27 employees in the interim “crossed the one-year threshold” remaining on leave, and that the 10 remaining in that status had so far cost the government $2,205,685. Despite some improvements in the department’s handling of the situation, he said, some extreme cases remain unaddressed. For example:

  • A Border Patrol agent was placed on administrative leave for misconduct and a subsequent investigation for a total of 9,736 hours, with an approximate total cost to the agency of $545,156.
  • A Federal Emergency Management Agency civil rights specialist was placed on administrative leave for “financial unsuitability” for a total time of 4,040 hours at an estimated cost of $122,751.

The senator cited “several cases where employees were ‘ordered to undergo fitness-for-duty examination,’ but [DHS does] not provide any further explanation of what medical issues prevented the employee from remaining in the workplace, which was specifically requested. There were several instances in which an employee was ordered to undergo treatment, but the data do not explain the length of the treatment and the treatment process. Likewise, in security cases, the data do not provide a full explanation of who determined that the employee posed such a threat and on what basis that determination was made.”

Finally, the senator asked DHS for more background on the administrative leave provided to TSA’s Hoggan, which came up during a May 25 House Homeland Security Committee hearing at which TSA chief Peter Neffenger testified on troubles with TSA screening at crowded airports.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., questioned whether the decision to put Hoggan on leave at an estimated $500 a day was consistent with departmental policy that justifies it on grounds of threat to co-workers, damage to federal property or other threats to government interests.

Neffenger replied that he had already been planning to “make a leadership change.” The leave was “a very short-term decision,” he said, “so while the process -- it allows us to make the process for what the next steps are with that, so I can move forward with the new direction that I need to ensure we meet the challenges coming forward.”

Grassley asked DHS to provide, by July 8, details in writing or in staff briefings on plans for seven employees who’ve been on leave for more than a year.  He seeks details on how medical “fitness for duty” determinations are scheduled to be timely. He also seeks a description of current policies and procedures for imposing administrative leave used by each DHS component, record-keeping requirements and internal controls, and plans to respond to the March GAO report’s recommendations.

A DHS spokeswoman in an email to Government Executive stressed that the department is “firmly committed to the appropriate use of administrative leave,” as it told GAO back in March, and is working to identify “successful practices, address potential inefficiencies, make appropriate adjustments and share results across the department.” That includes meeting with human resources officials from all components to discuss improvements.

Though DHS plans to reply to Grassley immediately, its review of all fiscal 2016 data on administrative leave will be complete by March 31, 2017.