VA decides to settle racial bias complaint against Richmond facility

Will A. Gunn, VA general counsel, said department officials decided to settle "because of a failure on our part to timely identify and make relevant documents available" to the workers. "Despite having produced in excess of 10,000 pages of documents, certain relevant documents were overlooked. Unfortunately for all parties, this oversight did not come to light until administrative proceedings" on Feb. 4.

Both sides were required to submit all evidence by August 2007.

The workers charged they were discriminated against in the distribution of monetary and non-monetary awards for exemplary performance. "Reaching this settlement took an extraordinary effort on the part of everyone involved," said Cathy Harris, lead counsel for the employees.

Michael Kator, another attorney for the workers, said he expects the agreement in principle with VA to become a final settlement within a few days. The employees will split about $2.5 million, he said, with the remainder going for legal fees.

"Disputes over the awards policies have dragged down employee morale for years and caused many exceptional employees to leave the VA for other employment," Kator said. "Settling this case will be an enormous boost to the morale of African American employees of the Richmond medical center, and this will ultimately redound to the benefit of our veterans."
'Inherently governmental'

"Inherently governmental" is the kind of Washington-speak that makes eyes glaze. But its definition could make a big difference in how much government work is farmed out to contractors and how much is done by federal employees.

Work that fits within the definition is supposed to be reserved for staff members. The looser the definition, the more work that can go to contractors.

For about a year, the Obama administration has worked to define the term, and it looks as though that definition is near. An Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman told the Federal Diary that the OMB will "clarify what work can be contracted out and what work must be performed by federal employees" and that guidance on the subject will be issued soon, perhaps by the end of the month.

"That guidance will address 'inherently governmental' functions, as well as other work that needs to be reserved for federal employees, such as ensuring we have in-house capacity to maintain control when we use contractors to help with the performance of critical functions," said Jean B. Weinberg, OMB's deputy press secretary.

President Obama wanted the guidance by Sept. 30.

Better late than never.
Plain Language Act

Speaking of Washington-speak, the House approved legislation Wednesday that would require government agencies to do the opposite. The Plain Language Act was approved 386 to 33, strongly signaling that Democrats and Republicans can work together.

The bill requires publicly distributed documents to be written in plain language and in a "clear, concise, well-organized" manner. The fact that it takes a federal law to get Uncle Sam to write clearly demonstrates just how steeped in jargon he is.

"There is no reason why the federal government can't write these forms and other public documents in a way we can all understand," said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), the bill's sponsor. "Writing government documents in plain language will increase government accountability and will save Americans time and money. Plain, straightforward language makes it easy for taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing and what services it is offering.

A Senate committee passed a companion bill in December.
Safety and security

In a time of violent acts against federal employees, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) wants to show government workers some love. He introduced a resolution that "expresses the nation's appreciation for the outstanding contributions made by federal employees to the United States" and urges the government to find ways to improve their safety and security.

Moran said the March 4 shooting of two Pentagon police officers, an incident that left the attacker dead, and the killing of an Internal Revenue Service worker in Austin when a suicidal pilot flew his plane into a building housing federal tax offices "were more than attempts at mass murder. They were acts of terrorism."

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