Lawmakers want review of State Department employment practices

Obama holdovers claim 'political retribution'

By ELISE LABOTT, CNN
Headline Goes Here PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

(CNN) - Key Democratic lawmakers are calling on the State Department's watchdog to conduct an "immediate review" of personnel practices after a number of employees told CNN they were unlawfully targeted for political reasons due to their work under the last administration.

The employees had been reassigned from their areas of expertise to help clear the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has designated as a priority. The employees regarded the move as retaliation.

"Our staffs have been made aware of credible allegations that the State Department has required high-level career civil servants, with distinguished records, serving administrations of both parties, to move to performing tasks outside their area of substantive expertise," Reps. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, wrote in a letter to the State Department's Inspector General sent Friday.

"At the very least, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars. At worst it may constitute impermissible abuse and retaliation," the letter read.

The letter to the inspector general cites a CNN report Friday that a growing number of State Department employees say they are being put in career purgatory because of their previous work on policy priorities associated with President Barack Obama and in offices the Trump administration is interested in closing.

From 'superstar' to data entry

Ian Moss, a former Marine, joined the State Department during the Obama administration and worked for five years in the office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, where he led inter-agency delegations to negotiate transfers of dozens of Guantanamo detainees, before he was seconded to what was supposed to be a career-enhancing temporary assignment in the National Security Council in May 2016 where he worked as Director of Human Rights and National Security Issues.

When President Donald Trump took office, Moss remained in the post working for national security adviser H.R. McMaster and was praised by both McMaster and his direct supervisor who, in Moss' most recent review called him a "SUPERSTAR!" who helped produce "the "highest quality advance and analysis to two Presidents, three national security advisers and numerous other senior US government officials."

When Moss returned for duty at the State Department in October, he expected to return to his old office dealing with Guantanamo detainees or be given similar work. Instead, he was assigned under threat of disciplinary action to the FOIA task force, his attorney tells CNN.

While several of the 10 "FOIA surge teams" involve substantive matters that could benefit from his expertise, such as handling classified material and working with foreign governments named in the documents, Moss was assigned with data entry and research alongside interns and civil service employees more than 10 levels below his rank of GS-14.

Moss is not alone. Three other State Department officials who worked in the offices of special envoys created by Obama tell CNN they have retained attorneys after being assigned clerical duties related to FOIA requests that are not commensurate with their rank and believe they are being politically targeted. The employees have not received information about the basis for their transfers, the scope of their work or how long the temporary assignments will conclude.

Did politics 'play any role'?

In their letter to the inspector general asking for a review of the "FOIA surge," the Democratic lawmakers lay out a series of questions for which they want immediate answers.

"Were these personnel assignments made according to U.S. law and Department regulations? Were the rights of Department employees violated? Did political retaliation play any role?"

"In addition to being required to work in areas unrelated to their expertise, these employees have not received formal personnel actions indicating the bases for the transfers, the structure in which they are to work, or when these temporary assignments will conclude," the letter said.

Tillerson has made clearing a backlog of FOIA requests a priority and reassigned staff to what State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert has called "an all-hands on deck" effort to clear it.

Nauert told CNN that employees are being asked to serve in the FOIA office due to need, "without regard to politics."

"There is a job that needs to be done," Nauert said. "It may not be a glamorous job, but it's an important one."

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