Exclusive: DHS officials broke hiring rules, watchdog alleges

Top hiring officials at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency broke federal civil service laws when they tried to hire three politically connected but unqualified candidates who were favored by the agency’s then-commissioner, a government watchdog charged Tuesday.

The human resources office was warned that choosing the candidates, political appointees who worked on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and were then hired at the Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency, would circumvent laws designed to create a fair competition for federal jobs.

But the staff pressed ahead anyway to please their boss, Alan Bersin, the incoming head of CBP in 2010, according to two complaints the Office of Special Counsel filed Tuesday with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Hiring officials manipulated the process to select the men for career appointments to CBP, tailoring job descriptions to fit their qualifications so they would get the jobs, the complaint alleges.

One of the two officials, Katherine Coffman, was promoted to assistant commissioner for human resources, the top personnel job at CBP, after the incident. The other is a supervisor who works under her.

“Human resources officials are on the front lines when it comes to upholding our merit system and preventing improper political burrowing into the career civil service,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement.

“They should be the last people breaking civil service rules, especially after being warned not to do so repeatedly.”

Coffman could not be reached for comment, officials said.

Lerner’s office is an investigative agency that looks into claims of government wrongdoing and complaints of retaliation by those who report it. The merit systems board decides whether federal agencies have broken civil service laws.

The complaints filed Tuesday do not name Bersin, who left the commissioner’s post in 2011 and now serves as Homeland Security’s assistant secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer.

Top officials at DHS and the Office of Personnel Management intervened before any of the political appointees was hired.

But in a third complaint,Lerner’s office charged that a third human resources supervisor gave an improper advantage to a friend of Bersin’s who had retired from the military by providing the man with advance information about a vacancy announcement. The supervisor also helped the candidate improve his application. The man is employed at CBP as a program manager.

CBP spokesman Michael Friel said in a statement: “U.S. Customs and Border Protection has and will continue to fully cooperate with the Office of the Special Counsel on all investigations but can’t comment on specific ongoing cases.”

Bersin had hired the political appointees to his inner circle of advisers while he served as former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s lead representative on border affairs. President Obama tapped Bersin for a recess appointment for the top job at CBP.

Shortly after he arrived, Bersin gave the human resources staff three names and told them he wanted to bring the men on as political appointees. But the slots for those jobs, known as Schedule C positions, were filled. So the staff attempted to hire them instead into open civil service positions at the GS-13 level, as management and policy analysts, the complaints allege.

But the men were not qualified for management and policy analyst jobs, the complaints allege,  in part because they lacked experience in government.

According to the complaints,  the hiring officials “willfully engaged in improper tactics to manipulate the competitive examination process to select and appoint Bersin’s three political employees” to competitive career positions.

The hiring staff drafted the job descriptions to closely fit the résumés of Bersin’s candidates, adding requirements that were designed to disqualify other candidates for the positions, the complaints say.

Two of  the favored candidates did not even meet “the minimum qualification requirements for their respective career positions” because they lacked at least one year of relevant experience.

None of the candidates were interviewed.

Ultimately, the top hiring official at Homeland Security reviewed the case and stopped the hires from moving forward.

But Coffman pressed to hire one of them using a “a special noncompetitive appointment authority” that allows a political appointee to convert to a career position. The Office of Personnel Management, which scrutinizes use of this special authority, turned the request down.

Then OPM officials reported what they believed were improper hiring tactics to the Office of Special Counsel.



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