The federal personnel chief, criticized last month for closing the government three hours after a major snowstorm hit the Washington area, pointed to “the unique nature of the storm” in defending her actions to a congressional subcommittee that has asked her to explain why she didn’t make the decision to shut down the government earlier.
Janice M. Lachance, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), was on the campaign trail Jan. 25 with Vice President Al Gore in Iowa when she declared a snow day for federal workers here at 7 a.m., three hours after she initially decided to keep the government open.
By that time, many workers already were creeping into town on snow- and ice-slicked roads or waiting for delayed trains at commuter rail and Metro stations.
In a Feb. 10 letter to the House Government Reform Committee’s civil service subcommittee, Ms. Lachance blamed the storm’s “rapidly deteriorating conditions” for her delay in shutting down the government.
“I never make this decision lightly,” Ms. Lachance wrote to Rep. Joe Scarborough, Florida Republican, chairman of the subcommittee.
“Unfortunately the unique nature of the storm meant that those with early reporting times who chose not to use their unscheduled leave or flexible work options were inconvenienced after making difficult trips to their work site,” Ms. Lachance wrote in the letter obtained by The Washington Times.
“Given the circumstances of an unforeseen, major winter storm, the nature of which was rapidly changing, I believe the process worked as well as possible.”
The director’s response came eight days after Mr. Scarborough sent Ms. Lachance a letter asking her to explain in writing why she didn’t act “more quickly” in shutting down the government that morning.
“I was dismayed that you did not decide to close federal offices until 7 a.m. on Jan. 25, and unnecessarily exposed many federal employees to a hazardous commute … I believe our work force deserves better,” Mr. Scarborough told Ms. Lachance in the letter.
“Unlike nearby local governments, the federal government did not act quickly enough to protect the safety of our federal workers. The safety of many of our federal workers was put in jeopardy unnecessarily.”
In his Feb. 2 letter to Ms. Lachance, Mr. Scarborough also asked the director to answer 10 questions, including why she was in Iowa campaigning for Mr. Gore when a fierce snowstorm was approaching the Washington area.
“I recognize your legal right to campaign for the Vice President or any other candidate for federal office,” Mr. Scarborough wrote in his three-page letter. “Nevertheless, this incident raises serious concerns relating to whether your campaign activity has interfered with the discharge of your official duties.”
Mr. Scarborough asked Ms. Lachance to answer the questions and produce “transcripts, minutes” and “recordings of any conference calls and meetings” relating to the decision to close the government Jan. 25 by last Friday.
He also wanted to know whether Ms. Lachance campaigned for any other politicians in the last year.
Jon-Christopher Bua, OPM’s communications director, said Tuesday Ms. Lachance’s response was delivered to Mr. Scarborough’s office by last Friday.
“He has all the answers that Ms. Lachance compiled succinctly,” Mr. Bua said. “Ms. Lachance certainly stands by her decision.”
Mr. Scarborough’s press secretary, David Stafford, said yesterday the congressman has reviewed Ms. Lachance’s response but declined to comment any further. He said the congressman and Ms. Lachance will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the matter.
But subcommittee officials said if Mr. Scarborough finds anything improper in the director’s response, he may choose to hold a hearing or investigate the matter further.
In her 10-page response, Ms. Lachance described in detail the agency’s emergency dismissal procedures that she and 43 officials from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments follow before deciding on the government’s status.
Ms. Lachance also gave an account of all the calls that took place between her and her chief of staff, Leigh Shein, the night of Jan. 24, when Mr. Shein first heard news reports about an approaching storm, and the early morning of Jan. 25, when all government officials participated in two telephone conferences, the second of which resulted in the government shutdown.
Ms. Lachance said, however, that her agency “does not have any transcripts, minutes, or recordings of any conference calls or meetings relating to the decision to close” the government.
As for her campaign activities, Ms. Lachance stated she had only campaigned for Mr. Gore at two events since January 1999.
Besides her trip to Iowa, Ms. Lachance attended a Gore 2000 organization meeting held Jan. 8, 1999, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., where she addressed the Northern Virginians for Gore meeting.
In Iowa last month, Ms. Lachance said she addressed a county-level meeting of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, worked the phone bank and on the “Get Out the Vote” effort. She added that she worked at a caucus location on the evening of Jan. 24.
She was scheduled to return to Washington the following morning but got stranded in Iowa as a result of the snowstorm in Washington.
Ms. Lachance also stated she paid for her travel, food and lodging.