- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The Department of Labor gave "undue preference" in the 1999 hiring of a political appointee for a civil-service job even though two war veterans were more qualified for the job, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management will announce today.

As a result, the OPM has ordered the Labor Department to examine its hiring practices and give "priority consideration" for future jobs to the two veterans and four nonveteran employees who were affected.

The OPM announcement could be the first of many stemming from a February report from the General Accounting Office that outlined a problem with the placing of political appointees into competitive-service positions, which are career jobs typically requiring a competitive interview process.

The GAO said that out of the 111 times someone switched from an appointed job to a competitive-service position from October 1998 to April 2001, 17 carried the appearance of political preferences or favoritism with appointees. The GAO surveyed 45 agencies for its report.

The report, which mentioned cases involving the two veterans, caused the Labor Department to ask OPM in March for a review of its personnel practices. The OPM's Office of Merit Systems Oversight and Effectiveness is still reviewing all other cases outlined in the GAO report.

"Our findings are very serious, and we are referring the findings to the Office of Special Counsel," OPM Director Kay Coles James said in a letter sent to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao on Monday. "The findings suggest that prohibited personnel practices may have been committed by officials" at the Labor Department.

It is common for political appointees in the federal government to seek appointments to positions that do not end with an administration. Under law, however, these positions must be filled based on merit and through fair and open competition.

The Office of Special Counsel, which will hand down any penalties resulting from this case, specifically forbids giving an "unauthorized preference or advantage to anyone so as to improve or injure the employment prospects of any particular employee or applicant."

According to the OPM, the woman at the center of this case, who did not have government work experience, was given a political appointment as a special assistant in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management, a division of the Labor Department, in 1998. She never served in that department but was sent to work as a management analyst in the Office of Small Business Programs.

The OPM contends she was sent there to be groomed to be full-time in the position. She was appointed full time in 1999. But, the OPM said, that same position was advertised in 1998 and canceled, even though the vacancy attracted a number of qualified candidates, including the two veterans.

One of the veterans had 10 preference points, which are granted as compensation to those who have missed work due to serving the country.

The second veteran had five preference points.

"Had that situation played out originally, the subject would not have been appointable," said a source familiar with the request and review of the case.

In its report to the Labor Department, the OPM said, "From the totality of the facts in this case, we believe [the earlier vacancy] was canceled because two other applicants would have blocked the selection of the appointee."

The OPM declined to release the woman's name.

In addition to ordering that the two veteran and four nonveteran employees be given priority hiring consideration, the OPM has ordered the Labor Department to alter its human-resources-accountability system and examine its treatment of veterans in the hiring process.

The OPM said it will conduct periodic reviews of the Labor Department.

The Office of Special Counsel will conduct an investigation based on the OPM findings and could hand down penalties, including declaring that involved parties may no longer work for the federal government.

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