OPM obstructive in politicised hiring probe, says investigator

By on 28/07/2020
Here for the right reasons? Legislators have requested an investigation into the alleged politicisation of some appointments at the USA’s civil service HR agency. (Picture posed by model, courtesy of http://www.amtec.us.com)

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has repeatedly failed to comply with record requests during an investigation into the alleged politicisation of appointments, its inspector general has said. In a letter to legislators sent last week, acting OPM inspector general (OIG) Norbert Vint accused the OPM of “a pattern of delay and non-responsiveness”; having missed two deadlines, a few days later the OPM did provide Vint with a set of records.

According to reports in Government Executive, in 2019 a source inside OPM informed lawmakers that officials were circumventing the mainstream, merit-based civil service hiring processes by using ‘direct hire authority’ powers to fill vacancies with staff improperly selected for political reasons.

While senior leaders are politically appointed in the USA, in most roles appointment is on merit. The direct hire authority allows agencies to fill jobs without an open competition when there’s a critical need to fill a position or qualified candidates have not been found following the normal process – but the whistleblower alleged the exception was being used to bring in political appointees.

As a result, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations asked Vint to look into the allegations. His investigation began in May.

Red letter

However, in a letter sent to members of the House and Senate appropriators last week, Vint said the OPM had not provided any documents relating to the issue despite numerous requests by the OIG over a two month period. Federal law requires agencies to comply with requests for records in a timely manner, and for the inspector general to report any failure to do so.

“Over the past two months the agency has engaged in a pattern of delay and non-responsiveness that culminated with the failure to produce agency records requested by the agreed upon date of July 17, 2020,” the letter says.

Agency records were initially requested on June 9 with a June 17 deadline. This was pushed at the OPM’s request, but a second deadline of July 17 was then missed.

Vint writes that “timely access to agency records is essential in order for the OIG to perform this critical work,” adding that OPM acting head Michael Rigas was informed of the agency’s failure to provide the requested records on July 14.

Missed opportunities

The letter also includes a detailed timeline showing the numerous missed opportunities the OPM was given to cooperate. “The OPM OIG repeatedly informed the agency that we would accept a rolling production, yet 35 days later the agency has failed to provide the OPM OIG with any documents,” it says.

Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, called on OPM to immediately turn over all relevant documents. “The continued stonewalling from Trump administration is an affront to our Constitution,” Connolly said. “Cooperating with oversight is not optional.”

An OPM spokesperson told GovExec that the documents requested by the inspector general were submitted for review on July 22. Faiza Mathon-Mathieu, senior counsel for legislative and external affairs at the OIG, said they are now in the process of reviewing the submission and do not yet know if everything they requested is there.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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