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State Dept. Violated Civil Service Laws in Transferring Employee, IG Finds

The report is the second this year to substantiate allegations of illegal political retaliation against civil servants at State.

The State Department violated civil service laws in reassigning at least one employee due to perceptions about her ethnicity and political views, according to new investigatory findings, which also found potential wrongdoing involving other personnel decisions. 

The State inspector general reviewed five potential cases of unlawful treatment of civil service employees. It verified the illegal conduct occurred in one case, while stating it did not receive enough information from State to make a determination in two others. The IG found no evidence of wrongdoing in the remaining cases. 

The investigations were a long time in the making. Government Executive first reported in January 2018 that the IG was probing allegations of political targeting and other prohibited personnel practices. The new report follows another released in August that substantiated several instances of high-level State officials systematically targeting career staffers based on work they carried out during the Obama administration. 

The case involving career employee Sahar Nowrouzzadeh—who in early 2017 was on detail to the Office of Policy Planning within the Office of the Secretary—surrounded an inaccurate article by a conservative outlet that attacked her for her work during the Obama administration. Several outsiders sent the story to top aides to then-State Secretary Rex Tillerson, including liaisons to the White House. The aides then engaged in various discussions about Nowrouzzadeh’s loyalty to President Trump and the country. In one email, Julia Haller, the White House liaison to State, noted Nowrouzzadeh’s Iranian heritage and said “my understanding is she cried when the president won.” Haller told the IG she mentioned Nowrouzzdeh’s national origin because she thought it could create a conflict of interest, given that Nowrouzzadeh was working on Iraninan policy. 

Nowrouzzadeh eventually sent the story to her boss, Office of Policy Planning Director Brian Hook, asking for advice on how to correct the record with regard to the article. She noted in her email that she started working for State during the George W. Bush administration and “adapted [her] work to the policy priorities of every administration [she] worked for.” Hook did not respond to the email or a follow-up, the IG found, but eventually met with Nowrouzzadeh and told her the article and subsequent physical threats she received were “fairly standard” and to be expected. In other emails, Ed Lacey, Hook’s deputy, “generally described career employees detailed to [his office] as ‘Obama/Clinton loyalists.’” 

State eventually ended Nowrouzzadeh’s detail 10 weeks early, sending her back to her position in the Near East Affairs Bureau. The IG noted the department has discretion to end details, but that flexibility is not “unbounded.” Investigators found no evidence that anyone at State involved in ending Nowrouzzadeh’s detail actually examined her fitness for the job or whether she was unwilling to implement department policy. Instead, the IG said, her “perceived political opinions, perceived association with former administrations, and her perceived national origin played at least some role” in the decision to end her detail and was therefore improper. 

The behavior of the State officials “strikes at the heart of the career service, which envisions professional employees who serve across administrations,” the IG said. The office recommended that State “consider whether disciplinary action is appropriate” for any department official involved in inappropriate action involving Nowrouzzadeh. State Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbühl responded that Secretary Mike Pompeo “will consider whether disciplinary action is appropriate,” though he said the department disagreed than any laws were broken. 

In a statement, Nowrouzzadeh said she hoped the IG’s finding would “prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct by members of this or any future administration.”

"I continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, to consider public service to our nation and to not be discouraged by these findings," she said, adding the government should “value rigorous debate among colleagues with deep experience when formulating U.S. policy on matters critical to our national security.”

The investigators also looked into two cases in which career employees were detailed to a “surge” force created by Tillerson to address a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests. While the employees complained they were relegated to administrative work due to their previous roles under the Obama administration—one of the employees, for example, had worked on closing the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay—the IG did not find evidence those decisions were politically motivated or otherwise improper. 

A fourth employee, Lawrence Bartlett, a career Senior Executive Service employee, was reassigned from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to another SES position at the direction of Christine Ciccone, Tillerson’s deputy chief of staff. While other officials reached out on Bartlett’s behalf, Ciccone—now an assistant secretary at the Homeland Security Department—said she “lost confidence” in him without providing further justification. Bartlett was featured in a February 2017 Breitbart story titled “Top 10 Holdover Obama Bureaucrats President Trump Can Fire or Remove Today,” though the IG did not find evidence that influenced the decision to transfer him. Ultimately, due to a lack of a written record and Ciccone’s “evasive answers to questions during her interview” with investigators, the IG was “unable to reach a conclusion” as to whether State complied with civil service laws in reassigning Bartlett. 

The IG also examined a Senior Foreign Service member who was passed over for a deputy assistant secretary position and transferred out of a position in the Near East Affairs Bureau. While political appointees passed around articles and their own notes that denigrated the employee—including one in 2017 from then-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon that said the administration was getting “tremendous blowback on this guy”—investigators again were unable to reach a conclusion on whether civil service laws were violated. 

In addition to potential discipline, the IG recommended that State ensure all appointees receive training on prohibited personnel practices and related policies. The department said it has already taken action to address the recommendation.

Reps. Eliot Engel and Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrats who chair the Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees, respectively, called on Pompeo to follow through on taking "strong disciplinary action against all those who engaged in these abuses." 

“The Trump Administration does not have the right to attack career employees who dedicate their lives to our nation—especially not as part of some sort of ill-conceived and groundless political ‘cleaning’ operation," they said in a joint statement. "This disturbing report—the second in six months—not only details some of these egregious abuses, but it documents obstruction that prevented the inspector general from conducting a full investigation."

This story was updated with additional comment.