Precisely three years after he was escorted from his office by security, Daniel Horowitz learned on June 22 that his financially steady administrative leave had come to an end.
The managing director who worked at the small, independent Chemical Safety Board since 2000 was paid his full GS-15 salary of $161,000 per year despite being barred from the agency’s offices pending the resolution of a misconduct investigation.
Vanessa Allen Sutherland, the chairwoman who left last Friday after three years of a five-year appointment, terminated Horowitz as one of her final acts. In her letter to him, she said she had been unable to reach a settlement involving outside parties. “Although you have faced internal or external challenges while in your role, these challenges are not a shield from the consequences of the behaviors detailed in” the three-year-old notice of proposed termination compiled by board member Kristen Kulinowski, who now serves as interim chair. “The facts of the notice,” Allen wrote, “and supporting documentation cause me to believe you would not be able to work with the staff or be in a supervisory role due to certain conduct by you.”
‘Personnel Management Malpractice’
Horowitz spoke to Government Executive on Tuesday about his former agency and the government’s administrative leave policies after his attorney, Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, released an array of documents on the case.
They are appealing to the Merit Systems Protection Board on the grounds that the misconduct charges are vague.
“In terms of his profession, Daniel Horowitz has been a political prisoner these past three years but rather than being released he was executed,” said Ruch, arguing that Sutherland wasted several hundred thousand dollars of taxpayer funds by her fear of acting until she could escape having to face the consequences. “This is among one of the worst cases of personnel management malpractice I have ever seen.”
Horowitz, meanwhile, continues to stay in his Northern Virginia home. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to spend time with my family and teenage son, which has been wonderful for me. I followed the developments of the agency and the field of chemistry, my lifelong interest,” said the 52-year-old Ph.D. He said he abided by the restriction against him doing other paying work. “I felt a certain degree of relief of not having the stress of the managing director job, but I would feel greater relief from having things resolved.”
His case is among the more extreme examples of federal employees caught up in extended investigations who are forced to stay home but continue to be paid. A bill pushed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., was attached to the defense authorization bill in December 2016 that cut the maximum time for administrative leave to 10 days per calendar year, after which the agency must consider the circumstances. The agency-by-agency details are still being worked out by the Office of Personnel Management 18 months later.
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Horowitz’s original placement was for a 45-day leave. Horowitz found it “shocking,” he recalls, that interim chair Rick Engler came into his office with a memo placing him on administrative leave pending an investigation by an outside firm RGS. Engler was followed by “armed police wearing protective armor,” Horowitz recalled. He was allowed a few minutes to pack up his desk, and was able to return a few weeks later to collect personal items.
The managing director was forced into limbo in 2015 at a time of turmoil at the agency that investigates industrial accidents and recommends regulatory changes. Then-Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso was dismissed in March 2015 following congressional, inspector general, and Office of Special Counsel probes of misuse of email and governance practices that some called “toxic.”
Horowitz insists that the accusations against him should be seen in the “broader context” of such disputes. The agency from 2010-2015 “pursued a lot of regulatory changes that would have affected the oil and chemical industry,” he said, moves he believe would have resulted in greater safety and fewer deaths or injuries in accidents. “That caused a lot of opposition to what CSB was doing,” he said. “If we had not pushed for the safety changes, I don’t think a lot of those managerial concerns would ever have surfaced.”
During his 18 years total with the agency (including a brief stint as a Senior Executive Service member), “I worked with all sorts of different board members and chairmen, reported to the chairman, and was promoted to increasing levels of responsibility,” Horowitz said. Before he was asked to be managing director in June 2010, he said, “my life was relatively uncomplicated.”
The charges detailed by Kulinowski in November 2015 are complex. They describe Horowitz accusing a deputy of manipulating an outside contractor's report on improving CSB morale, and “retaliating” against him in ways “unbecoming of a federal employee” such as having his email searched. In addition, she wrote to Horowitz, “you directed your staff to work together to create an investigations completion plan, but then later chastised them for preparing the draft document and subsequently chose not to have anyone perform this task at all.”
Horowitz and attorney Ruch plan to argue that the term “retaliation” was thrown around without a basis for charging him with a prohibited personnel practice or legal violation.
He said “throughout this process, I’ve expressed my eagerness to go back to work, not to just receive a salary and remain in limbo. I’ve proposed other innovative solutions, including going to and working with accident victims and organizations to help, so that everyone could get a good outcome.”
Instead, his next step is the MSPB. “We’’ll take this as far as we need to go to get it overturned,” Horowitz said.
Lengthy administrative leaves “are a tremendous problem governmentwide, and I don’t think agencies should have the opportunity to marginalize people and never make a decision on whatever the concern is,” Horowitz added. “It’s better for the taxpayer, agency and employee to either drop the charges or pursue them until there is some kind of decision.”
The CSB did not respond to requests for further comment.