The answer, in part, is union officials don't trust Defense and Homeland Security management to limit mandatory firings to these most obvious examples. It's also about appearances, says American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage. "It is really going to cause a problem for employees who take their jobs seriously and are committed to service," he says. "It looks like they are bad guys, and can't be trusted." Managers are more supportive. Karen Heiser, a spokeswoman for the Federal Managers Association, told a congressional committee earlier this year that the mandatory removal offenses are "a good way to aid in creating a culture that adheres to the sensitive nature of [national security] work."
The debate over mandatory removal offenses, known as deadly sins, is just one part of the larger fight between unions and management as DHS and Defense move forward with plans to implement new personnel systems later this year. Congress granted them that right in 2002 and 2003.
According to the final rules issued by Homeland Security in January, and the preliminary ones (still subject to change) by Defense in February, both departments will establish lists of mandatory removal offenses. Homeland Security has pledged to publish its final list in the Federal Register. Defense says simply that it will make employees aware of the offenses. At both departments, employees accused of committing the offenses will have the right to appeal. At Defense, appeals will go to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent agency that adjudicates appeals of agency disciplinary actions. The MSPB will not have authority to reduce the penalty, but can overturn the agency's decision. DHS will set up a three-member internal board to review mandatory removals. The DHS secretary will appoint board members, but unions can contribute to a list of candidates. It will be difficult to remove board members, who will serve overlapping three-year terms. Employees can appeal the board's decisions to MSPB, but the administrative judges will not have the right to review the facts of the case.
Much of the controversy over deadly sins stems from DHS and Defense being less than forthcoming about which offenses meet the criteria. Defense says it prefers not to describe offenses so the secretary would have more flexibility to set and change the list as circumstances require. At the IRS, where a 1998 law created a list of mandatory firing offenses, a lack of flexibility has proved problematic, the Defense rules say.
DHS, by contrast, provided a fuller list in its final rules after employees complained about its refusal to provide details. The list includes no-brainers such as aiding terrorists, but some are subject to interpretation. One, for example, says an employee cannot divulge sensitive law enforcement or confidential information. DHS already has a history of trying to fire employees who have complained publicly about security breaches and border control weaknesses. Unions say the rule aims to silence whistleblowers.
Another vague rule says an employee will be fired for "intentionally or willfully engaging in activities that compromise, or could compromise, the information, economic or financial infrastructure of the federal government." That rule worries unions since the gravity of such offenses could vary considerably, and the agency's in-house review panel will not have the right to mitigate penalties when it believes the employee is guilty.
Even if the in-house board overturns a decision, DHS retains the right to bring another adverse action under disciplinary procedures used for nonmandatory removals. In comments submitted to a House subcommittee in March, MSPB Chairman Neil A.G. McPhie said, "The possibility that an employee would be subject to multiple actions based on the same underlying conduct raises a substantial question of fundamental fairness."
Defense didn't claim a right to multiple actions, but the Pentagon laid out in stark terms how dimly it viewed MSPB's authority to reduce penalties that it finds too severe. "These regulations are intended to ensure that when a penalty is mitigated, the maximum justifiable penalty must be applied," its rules state.
That sentence set off Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April. "That's unfair. It's harsh. It's extreme on its face," he said. "The message that provision sends is that the department is concerned only about discipline and [has] no interest in fairness. Even convicted criminals are not always subjected to the maximum permissible penalty." Levin said the rules are not what Congress intended when it gave Defense authority to create a new personnel system in 2003.
Government Accountability Office official Derek Stewart, who oversees civilian personnel issues at Defense, said at the hearing that the department would be wise to learn from the Internal Revenue Service's example.
IRS' list of offenses, which included harassment of taxpayers, proved to be too vague, according to Stewart. "IRS employees feared that they would be falsely accused by taxpayers and investigated, and had little confidence that they would not be disciplined for making an honest mistake," he said.
Migration Policy Institute Issues Report on U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection Personnel Management
Jul 05, 2005 By News Staff
A new report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) confirms assertions made by officials of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) over the last several years: namely, that homeland security is threatened by management problems in the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The report, "One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan," highlights several areas of concern and suggests remedies.
The One Face at the Border program, a personnel realignment effort at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has taken the responsibilities previously handled by inspectors with three different areas of expertise -- immigration, customs and agricultural products -- and rolled them into a single position called a CBP officer. Consequently, among the problems found by MPI policy analyst Deborah Waller Meyers was an inadequate level of expertise on immigration issues at the nation's ports of entry. CBP officers who came to DHS from the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have long voiced concerns about inadequate cross-training among the officers from the three different disciplines.
Meyers also cites a "climate of fear among employees" due to job insecurity and fears of retaliation for voicing operational concerns. The MPI researcher attributes this counterproductive climate to a number of factors, including unease in the workforce about the new DHS personnel system, which eliminates meaningful collective bargaining, weakens due process safeguards and pits employees against one another for raises in a so-called pay-for-performance system.
"Now that an institution with the prestige of the Migration Policy Institute has blown the whistle on these management issues within Customs and Border Protection, perhaps our friends on Capitol Hill will take notice," said Charles Showalter, president of the AFGE National Homeland Security Council, which represents CBP officers. "Our officers take their mission seriously, and want to do the best possible job for the American people. But that's hard to do in a climate of fear and in a culture where transparency is hard to find. Employees standing up for their rights, granted by either law or contract, is not a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars, as asserted by some in DHS.
Among the recommendations in "One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan," MPI says CBP should:
• Develop a new agency culture that values its employees and transparency.
• Keep its employees better informed and enhance mechanisms for employee feedback.
• Resolve the outstanding personnel-related issues relating to the merger, including union representation. Fair and consistent pay, work, training and promotion opportunities under one set of rules should ameliorate concerns about job security and facilitate an integrated workforce.
• Proactively address the climate of fear among employees, ensuring that those who speak out appropriately in the name of security are supported rather than suppressed.
• Build a culture of transparency, including evaluations that are publicly accessible for input and review ... .
• Exercise greater caution about public statements regarding the benefits of the One Face at the Border program so as not to create unrealistic expectations.
The entire report, "One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan," by Deborah Waller Meyers, is available online.
Vets face long wait for care
By Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News
Created: 7/5/2005 8:35:22 AM
Updated: 7/5/2005 8:35:22 AM
Funding shortfalls, closed clinics keep many from needed drug or alcohol treatment.
Despite warnings that more soldiers will need health care as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan, a substance abuse clinic that treated a dozen Michigan vets daily has been shuttered as part of an effort to close a $2.6 billion national deficit in health care programs for veterans.
That has left veterans with drug and alcohol problems scrambling for help that many cannot afford or find nearby.
"We told them," said Marine Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Ganzeveld of Dearborn, who said he waited almost a year for adequate substance abuse care and other services.
"They didn't listen. They made us all of these promises, and we're still waiting for help."
Since last summer, veterans in Metro Detroit and across the country have complained of waiting months or years for adequate medical services such as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and physical therapy.
The Veterans Administration repeatedly denied that its health care was inadequate and, in April, the Bush administration said the VA didn't need the money; 220 Republicans in Congress opposed a bill originating in the Senate that would have provided $1.97 billion to improve services.
Then, last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson did an about-face: He told Congress that his department faces a $1.5 billion deficit in health care this year, and the prospect of a $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion deficit in 2006.
Both chambers scrambled to approve new spending by unanimous votes.
Within 24 hours of Nicholson's dramatic testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the Senate approved a $1.5 billion supplemental appropriation for health services for veterans.
The House then approved a $975 million appropriation. Veterans are now waiting for the two versions to be reconciled, and the issue is far from settled.
How to help
The vets and their advocates say the human cost already is clear. What is unclear is when, or if, the additional spending under consideration in Washington would enable veterans' health care services to catch up with demand, or whether the substance abuse clinic in Detroit at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center would reopen.
The government no longer disputes veterans' claims that they need more health services. Nicholson's VA, which 10 weeks ago said 23,553 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will seek medical care, last week said the number is more like 103,000.
The surge in demand for VA health services also is supported by a report in the New England Journal of Medicine revealing that the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder is 15 percent to 17 percent higher for veterans of the war in Iraq than for veterans of Afghanistan. Substance abuse often follows post-traumatic stress, doctors say.
Nevertheless, veterans say that health services for vets of all ages remain in short supply. When the inpatient substance abuse program at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit closed in May, for example, some of its services folded into a ward for the mentally ill. But veterans who need the substance abuse services say they do not belong in a mental ward.
"Every time I go down to the VA, I try to get into the methadone program and they keep telling me it has a waiting list for over a year," said Ganzeveld, 23. He traces his problems with substance abuse to morphine-based drugs prescribed for a serious back injury he suffered in combat, as well as to the post-traumatic stress disorder with which he has been diagnosed.
"Then they wrote me a letter and said the (Dingell) clinic is closed. Then they told me to go to Herman Kiefer (Hospital). And Kiefer says, 'We can't take you because you don't live in Detroit.' They gave me another number. I call them and they tell me, 'You have to go back to the VA.' I tell them I just got back from Iraq, and that Iraqi vets were going to be on top of the list for this because the conflict is still going on."
The VA hospital in Detroit has reduced an $8 million operating deficit to $3 million, officials say.
"Everyone knows there's no services because there's no money," said Ganzeveld, who is at home in Dearborn but could be redeployed to Iraq. He says he struggles through pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse as he tries to save his marriage and rebuild his life after risking it for his country.
Ann Talbot, a spokeswoman for the Dingell hospital, said the clinic was eliminated to achieve "efficiencies." But she denied that veterans in need of substance abuse assistance have been turned away.
"We consolidated our units and decided we could be more efficient and treat people better in one larger unit, than to have two big units," Talbot said.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, worries that America is breaking a promise to the men and women who drove Saddam Hussein into his spider hole and took Afghanistan from Osama bin Laden's allies, the Taliban.
"What concerns me most is that when men and women sign up to protect and serve us in the military or the National Guard, we say they will have access to health care when they come home," said Stabenow, who for months urged more spending. "There should be no debate about whether there will be adequate health care services for veterans.
"In Michigan, veterans are waiting up to six months just to see a doctor. And many of them are having to drive several hours."
William Maxwell of Detroit said he had to move to Battle Creek, home of the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, this year in search of adequate services. He is still looking.
Like other Vietnam veterans, Maxwell, 53, says he has been grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder for more than two decades.
"I'm not a blight on society," Maxwell said. "I worked at GM for 20 years, everything from janitor to management, and I am trying to get back there. But my (post-traumatic stress disorder) has caused me some problems and I can't get back in."
In a sequence of events that veterans and their advocates say is often repeated, Maxwell first sought care for the stress disorder at the VA hospital in Detroit. He was told repeatedly that services were unavailable. "You know what they told me? If I am not chemically dependent, go home," Maxwell said.
He took a drug test and, when no substances were found, a worker at the hospital motioned him aside with a suggestion that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder say they often hear.
"I was made to realize that if I got high, I would get help," Maxwell said. "So, I got high."
But he still did not get help in Detroit, because the Dingell clinic closed in May.
Maxwell then moved to Battle Creek and enrolled in the program there. But the hospital recently terminated his substance abuse services, saying Maxwell had consumed alcohol - which he denies.
Feeling the impact
Meanwhile, fights reportedly have broken out in the mental health ward in Detroit since the consolidation of services. The Veterans Affairs Police have had to respond to the unit a few times, hospital employees say.
"Those two groups don't belong together, and there's been some trouble," said William Scott, president of Local 933 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which has complained about the change of work conditions for its employees without proper notice.
Scott and others say hospital administrators intentionally reduced the number of veterans in the substance abuse program before closing it.
Talbot denied that. But she said she is aware of at least some tensions among veterans caused by the consolidation.
"There has been some bickering in the unit," she said. "But I am not aware of a fight breaking out - although it may not have been reported."
Emergency Fix For Ailing VA
Abillion dollars here, $1.5 billion there and pretty soon -- to paraphrase a quote often attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill. -- you're talking about a real shortfall in the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson spent a good part of last week trying to explain away why the agency needed an emergency appropriation of $1.5 billion to cover the deficit in its medicalcare budget this fiscal year. And he'll need $1 billion on top of that to make up for an underprojection in the 2006 budget.
The growing deficit, generated in part by thousands of wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, should have come as no surprise.
Fred Malphurs, director of the veterans' network for North Florida and South Georgia, told The Ledger's Washington bureau that he told the department nine months ago that his 11 hospitals would be $108 million over budget for this year.
"It's no surprise to me," he said.
Seven months after Malphurs raised the red flag, Sen. Patty Murphy, D-Wash., attempted to add $2 billion to the VA's 2005 budget. The attempt was beaten back by Republican senators. Nicholson had told Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, chairwoman of the Military Construction and Veteran Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee in a letter that the additional money wasn't needed.
Last week, Murphy asked Nicholson, "Do you have a problem?"
Nicholson, apparently still in denial, replied: "We certainly don't have a crisis."
The 25 million veterans around the county -- including the estimated 56,000 in Polk County -- no doubt view it as a crisis. There are thousands of them on waiting lists (nearly 8,000 in the North FloridaSouth Georgia district alone) for appointments.
They more likely have the view expressed by Rep. Lane Evans, DIll., the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a Vietnam veteran: "This is certainly a problem and definitely a crisis."
The explanation for this would be almost laughable if it wasn't so serious. In February 2004, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held its first hearing on the VA's budget for the 2005 fiscal year. Then-VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi told committee members that the VA had asked for $1.2 billion more in its budget than the White House approved.
Congressional Quarterly, a congressional-reporting service, said the revelation "stunned many veterans' groups and staff aides, who say that legislators routinely ask how much the department has sought from the White House Office of Management and Budget, but rarely get a straight answer." Principi resigned in early December.
Nicholson, however, blamed the shortfall on the VA's system for projecting health-care costs. He said projections are based on a three-year lag time, so that the fiscal 2005 budget used data from 2002. The explanation didn't sit well with many congressional members.
"We have computers for crying out loud," said Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "Can't we do better than that?"
On the Senate side, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., wasn't happy that the VA's previous statements that money wasn't a problem had caused him and others to vote against an increase in the VA's budget this spring: "We were in error. . . . I am not happy that we were put in a position to vote against an amendment that we now find out was needed, but we got bad information."
According to congressional testimony, there were 335 VA patients for every VA doctor in 2000. At the end of the 2004 fiscal year in September, that ratio had increased to 531 to 1.
That ratio, among other statistics, caused the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, to issue a report in September saying the VA "does not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of new combat veterans while still providing for veterans of past wars."
The Senate voted 96-0 before adjourning for the Fourth of July holiday to appropriate an additional $1.5 billion for the department; the House voted 419-0 to approve $975 million. Several senators said they wanted to stick with the larger appropriation, which gives the VA the authority to carry unspent funds into the 2006 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
The mission statement of the VA is taken from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan."
It's time to take it seriously.
Civilian patrols mushrooming, along with the infighting
By Leslie Berestein
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
July 6, 2005
Three months after hundreds of people descended on southern Arizona to stage civilian border patrols as part of the Minuteman Project, the anti-illegal-immigration movement has snowballed, with offshoot groups forming along the southern border and in other states.
But as the movement has grown, along with the media attention surrounding it, it has also splintered. Rival factions have emerged, squabbling over issues ranging from political correctness to use of the "Minuteman" name, and even over e-mail etiquette.
Some leaders of offshoot groups have launched verbal grenades at each other in the media and via news releases; others have traded insults online.
One group leader who feels particularly picked on says he has cut ties with Minuteman leadership and plans to operate solo.
And last month, Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist dismissed two volunteers – whom he characterized as "wackos" – for sending querulous responses after he issued two e-mails to members of his group that threatened excommunication for those who didn't stop sniping at one another.
He signed one of his missives from "An American with better things to do than baby-sit quarrelsome adults."
"It's so counterproductive. It gets people distracted," said Gilchrist, a retired Orange County accountant who presides over Minuteman Project Inc., which he said is awaiting nonprofit status, and hopes to soon pursue employers who hire unauthorized workers.
"If I were to set up some rules of conduct, it would be to stop the argumentative attitude and be pleasant."
In late April, Gilchrist and project co-founder Chris Simcox, a California transplant to southern Arizona who owns the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper, parted ways amid difficulties, although, according to Gilchrist, they remain on good terms.
Simcox has since renamed his Civil Homeland Defense patrol group as Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Inc. and has been establishing chapters in other states, with hopes of staging a borderwide patrol event in October.
The Border Patrol's official position has been that it does not condone civilian patrols and that guarding the border should be left to trained professionals.
Members of the scrapping groups – including those sanctioned by Gilchrist and Simcox and those not – give different reasons for the infighting.
But many agree the international media attention showered on the Minuteman Project, while it energized the anti-illegal-immigration movement, has also created a monster of sorts.
"When we left Arizona in April, too many people had seen the glamour," said Mike Gaddy, who is active in a Simcox-sanctioned Minuteman group in Farmington, N.M. " 'Gosh, I was on Sean Hannity. Gosh, I was interviewed by The Baltimore Sun. Gosh, I was interviewed on Spanish radio.' Egos are a terrible thing."
Like several others, Gaddy sees the elbowing as competitive. He says it bothers him that there are people in the movement who have political aspirations.
Gilchrist, for one, is contemplating a bid for Congress.
Andy Ramirez, whose Chino-based Friends of the Border Patrol group plans to set up patrols in San Diego County in mid-September, ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly twice as a Democrat in the mid-1990s.
He has not announced plans to run again, but Ramirez said recently that he doesn't rule out the possibility of eventually running for federal office.
Both Gilchrist and Simcox, who does not plan to run for office, now have a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman who worked as a publicist for Alan Keyes, a failed Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
War of words
In recent months, Ramirez has engaged in a war of words with Jim Chase of Oceanside, who until lately led a group called United States Border Patrol Auxiliary. Chase recently changed the name to Border Watch; Ramirez is calling his September event "FBP Border Watch."
The two men have been going at each other in the media and via news releases.
In May, Ramirez sent out a release stating he had dissociated himself from Chase after "receiving several alarming e-mails" from him. Ramirez then reported that Chase, who had announced plans for a patrol event in mid-July, condoned the use of snipers.
Chase has denied the accusation, saying it was a misunderstanding; Ramirez insists he heard correctly.
The public back-and-forth, among other disagreements, has driven Chase to announce that he is dropping out of the larger anti-illegal-immigration movement spearheaded by the Minuteman organizers.
"I keep hearing all these things: I'm a rogue. I'm a Rambo. I want to shoot the heads off people," Chase said. "I'm a flower child compared to Gilchrist and Simcox."
Chase complains that Simcox's Arizona group, as it organizes new patrols, has taken "around 90 percent of my men away." He won't confirm whether he will still set up patrols in the Campo area July 16.
"Anything I do is going to be hidden, covert," said Chase, calling the infighting "absolutely silly."
Chase is still working with other groups along the border, including a New Mexico group called the New Mexico Minutemen that is engaged in a rivalry with Gaddy's similarly named Minuteman group.
According to Gary Cole, operations manager for Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, efforts are being made to bring outside groups into the organization, which he said is awaiting nonprofit status. But there are some who don't want to join.
The Defense Corps' guidelines discourage volunteers from pursuing or confronting undocumented immigrants, Cole said, and ban the use of rifles and shotguns in states where volunteers can freely carry firearms. This is a bone of contention with some groups, he said.
"The different wannabees want different things," Cole said. "You have different groups that want to go out and be far more militaristic than we are. Outside listening points, sniping points ... trip wires, all sorts of things. They feel we are way too politically correct."
The fear, Cole said, is that any mishap or violation of the law by a rogue group calling itself "Minutemen" could taint everyone involved.
Gilchrist said he has sought copyright protection for the "Minuteman Project" name, though he says he differs from Simcox on the general use of "Minuteman" or "Minutemen" by others.
"We are in a quandary as to how do we settle this," Gilchrist said. "If they want to use Minuteman, you can't stop them. To try to stop them would be to upset them."
Texas Minutemen leader Shannon McGauley says his group adheres to Minuteman operating procedures, but that he isn't interested in joining with Simcox. He says he trained with Gilchrist in Arizona and received his blessing to use the Minuteman name.
"We're all real Minutemen," McGauley said. "We all went to Arizona together and served in the desert with those snakes, where the trash was, with the scorpions. Our objectives are the same, but we just want to keep it a Texas operation. I don't want to be part of some corporation."
His group's Web site posts e-mails allegedly from both Gilchrist and Simcox, with one from the latter chastising them for how they identified themselves.
Caustic e-mails are the weapon of choice for many involved in the squabbling.
"In the name of the father, son, and holy spirit, come on James ... be a man or be an ass," reads one correspondence Gilchrist said he received from Chase in Oceanside. The two men generally get along, Gilchrist said, though not always via e-mail.
"The best thing for Jim to do is take a sledgehammer to his computer," Gilchrist said.
Those who have stood by watching the catfights are by turns annoyed or amused, depending on which side of the illegal-immigration debate they stand on.
"It's called check your cotton-picking ego at the door," complained Barbara Coe, a veteran anti-illegal-immigration crusader who heads the controversial California Coalition for Immigration Reform in Huntington Beach.
"To me it is just incredible, with as much as has been accomplished thanks to Jim Gilchrist, that anybody would do anything to make even a little bump in the road."
Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee, a human rights group affiliated with the Quakers that has condemned the Minutemen and their successors, says he's not surprised.
"There has always been bickering among these types of organizations," Ramirez said. "There is always someone trying to become the leader of the anti-illegal-immigration movement, because it is such a fashionable thing. People are just fighting to see who is going to get more media attention."
Chris Bauder, president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents San Diego-area agents, thinks the squabbles have to do with clashing ambitions, namely political ones.
"I think it's because they have underlying reasons for doing it, and that is what is causing all these problems," Bauder said. "It's political. That is how we have decided to view it. It is another political arena in which to watch the entertainers perform."
Gilchrist says things have been quiet in his group since he sent out warnings and dropped the worst squabblers. But clashes continue elsewhere, and some on the inside worry these could deflate the momentum the anti-illegal-immigration movement has built in recent months.
"What I would like to see is unity," said Gaddy in New Mexico. "But I'm afraid it's never going to happen, because no one wants to share the glory."