House Committee Investigates Whether Officials Misled Congress on OPM-GSA Merger
A recent watchdog group report cited notes from a phone call indicating the Trump administration was advised that the merger plan was illegal, an account that is at odds with what OPM officials testified before Congress last year.
The leadership of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday announced that the panel would investigate whether Trump administration officials lied in congressional testimony about the legality of the controversial proposal to eliminate the Office of Personnel Management and send most of its functions to the General Services Administration.
In June 2019, then-OPM Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Billy told lawmakers at a House hearing that the legal analysis of a proposal to merge OPM and GSA and send OPM’s policy functions to the Executive Office of the President was “still ongoing.” In documents provided to the Oversight and Reform Committee at the time, all information under the heading “Legal Authority” was redacted.
But according to a recent report from the Project on Government Oversight published in The Daily Beast, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel informed Trump administration lawyers that such a plan would be illegal during an April 2019 conference call, two months before Billy’s congressional testimony. Billy is now a senior adviser at the Office of Management and Budget.
After the report’s release, Democrats on the committee accused the administration of “covering up” this legal opinion and effectively lying to Congress. OPM denied the allegations through a spokesperson who declined to be named.
“This story is false,” an OPM spokesperson told Government Executive last week. “The Office of Legal Counsel never issued an opinion prohibiting the proposed reorganization of GSA and OPM.”
Now, Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., are demanding transcribed interviews with a slew of officials at OPM, OMB, GSA and the Office of Legal Counsel on the matter.
“This OLC legal opinion apparently was rendered months before two hearings before the subcommittee in which OPM and OMB officials were asked explicitly for any legal advice they received regarding the proposed elimination of OPM,” Maloney and Connolly wrote. “This new information raises questions about whether former Deputy Director of Management of OMB and former acting Director of OPM Margaret Weichert, as well as then-OPM Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Billy, misled Congress when they concealed this meeting, this legal advice and these notes.”
Maloney and Connolly also dismissed OPM’s denial of wrongdoing, noting that lawmakers asked witnesses about what legal advice they had received about the proposed merger, not simply whether they have received the full written report that constitutes an Office of Legal Counsel opinion.
“This carefully worded statement is just as misleading as the previous testimony of administration officials before the subcommittee,” Connolly and Maloney wrote. “If OLC in fact held a conference call with agency attorneys in which it delivered a legal ‘opinion’ that the White House plan to eliminate OPM was illegal—and if there are contemporaneous notes of this call—it does not matter if OLC never reduced this opinion to a final written report. Concealing these facts from the subcommittee is both disingenuous and an abuse of the trust that public officials owe to Congress and the American people.”
Maloney and Connolly also suggested that Weichert, who spearheaded the proposed merger, may have perjured herself during a May 2019 hearing on the proposal, noting that Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., repeatedly asked her about the existence of documents related to the proposal, including legal analyses.
“Director Weichert failed to mention the April 2019 conference call with the OLC, failed to mention the legal opinion provided during this phone call, and failed to mention that notes taken at the meeting were being withheld from the subcommittee, all of which would be responsive to Congresswoman Norton’s questions and the subcommittee’s document requests,” they wrote.
At the June 2019 hearing, then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., rejected the administration’s assertion that it could withhold so-called “deliberative” documents from Congress. Meadows is now the White House chief of staff.
The lawmakers also requested that the OPM inspector general’s office investigate whether political appointees “intentionally misled” the subcommittee in their testimony.
In December, Congress temporarily blocked the OPM-GSA merger proposal, stipulating in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that the administration cannot move any of OPM’s functions out of the agency until the National Academy of Public Administration can conduct a year-long study on the issue. That study is currently underway.