Appointee is said to have intimidated career staff while at the State Department.

Appointee is said to have intimidated career staff while at the State Department. By Sorbis / Shutterstock.com

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Democratic Lawmakers Demand Firing of DHS Official for Past Political Targeting

State Dept. IG was denied interview with appointee accused of intimidating career staff.

It’s a confrontation involving two key inspectors general, two Democratic House committee chairmen, a senator and the Homeland Security secretary. It concerns a lower-level appointee accused of politicized management of the State Department and the obligations of federal employees to cooperate with inspectors general.

Christine Ciccone, currently assistant Homeland Security Secretary for legislative affairs, on Wednesday became the subject of a management alert memo to her boss, Kirstjen Nielsen, from acting Homeland Security Inspector General IG John Kelly. The IG asked Nielsen to intervene in a stalemate between Ciccone and State Department IG Steve Linick, who since September has sought to interview Ciccone in his probe of allegations that she engaged in politically motivated retaliation against at least three State Department employees held over from the Obama administration.

Ciconne resigned as deputy chief of staff at State in March 2018, after then-Secretary Rex Tillerson was fired.

The State IG’s probe is being done at the request of several House and Senate panels, whose staffs were briefed by the State IG on Feb. 11 and were told that the refusal to cooperate was “unprecedented.”  Ciccone, according to the DHS IG, is balking at the interview concerning work she did in her previous job and “has made demands to review documents and interview memoranda as a precursor.” Kelly, citing dangers to the 1978 Inspector General Act, recommended that Nielsen “take appropriate disciplinary action against Ms. Ciccone under Management Directive 0810.1,” which in part states that DHS employees will be subject to disciplinary action if they refuse to provide documents or information or to answer questions posed by the OIG.

That prompted a separate demand that she be disciplined issued on Thursday by Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the chairmen, respectively, of the Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform panels, along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. They wrote Nielsen to “formally recommend that you take appropriate disciplinary action” against Ciccone.

 “Ms. Ciccone’s refusal to comply with State OIG’s request for an interview sets a dangerous precedent contrary to the fundamental tenants of the IG Act, with the potential to undermine our critical oversight function,” the three lawmakers said in a statement calling Ciccone’s refusal to be interviewed “outrageous.”

 “Targeting of career government employees at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development or any federal agency is unacceptable, and it is imperative that this kind of behavior not be tolerated,” they continued.

The lawmakers, who said they had received numerous whistleblower complaints about political retaliation at State and had alerted Secretary Mike Pompeo, asked for a response by Friday. They copied other committee chairmen and DHS senior official Claire Grady.

The Homeland Security Department on Thursday told Government Executive the memo is being reviewed. "Christine Ciccone is an exceptional member of the DHS team and has helped advance crucial efforts to secure our homeland during her time with the department," said DHS press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton. 

Also this week, State’s IG released a report criticizing the department for playing too loose with competitive hiring rules in bringing on scientific, professional and technical people. The period examined straddles the Obama and Trump administrations, from 2013-2018, and involves use of Schedule B to appoint GS-12s through GS-15s to hire “persons having special qualifications in foreign policy matters” who are prohibited from playing policy roles.

The IG found that as many as a third of the 137 or more Schedule B appointments “did not comply” with department and Office of Personnel Management guidance. “Several individuals lacked special qualifications in foreign policy matters, and, of the appointments reviewed, almost a fifth were appointments to positions that are inherently policy-determining or confidential,” the report said, noting that many of the jobs involved speechwriters, economists, trained negotiators and subject experts, some from think tanks. “In addition, the department used its Schedule B authority to convert then-current department employees or to hire department contractors as Schedule B employees when the expertise needed was already available within the Department.”

The IG recommended that State clarify its guidance on the use of Schedule B and regularly consult with State’s Office of Legal Adviser to make sure future appointments comply. The department agreed.