- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2014

After suffering through a striking number of rough grillings at the hands of Congress, State Department officials have approved a contract worth up to $545,000 to help train themselves for how to brief lawmakers and to testify at hearings.

The contract with Orlando, Florida-based AMTIS, Inc. includes classes entitled “Communicating with Congress: Briefing and Testifying” and pays for one-on-one sessions to hold a mock hearing with questioners playing the role of lawmakers asking hard questions of the would-be witnesses.

Over the last two years, department officials have stumbled through hearings on their handling of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, been berated for failing to be able to lay out a new legal framework for the war on terror and seen one top campaign bundler for President Obama admit he’d never traveled to Argentina — the country he’d been nominated to serve in as U.S. ambassador.

State Department officials did not respond to questions about the contract by deadline on Thursday.

Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, said if officials were doing their jobs correctly, the money wouldn’t be needed.

“All they have to do is sit there at a microphone, read their testimony and answer questions truthfully, honestly and thoroughly and explain to the American people what they’re doing,” Ms. Paige said.

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“It’s not ‘The Charlie Rose Show’; it’s not ‘The View,’” she said. “It is congressional testimony. So just cough up the facts, because that’s all we really need from you.”

Documents show the contract also includes a separate ambassadorial seminar “for building effective relationships with members of Congress and their staffers.”

The Communicating with Congress class is supposed to be taught by individuals with current or recent Capitol Hill experience.

And the simulated congressional hearings, which are to be recorded on video, have would-be witnesses deliver testimony before a panel of experts “capable of appropriate questioning and criticism.”

The classes are held under the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. Other topics taught under the contract include “tips for leveraging State’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs,” “training and skill-building in briefing techniques” and “building effective relationships.”

Some of the State Department’s own current employees could offer lessons on how to survive a tough hearing.

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Back in February, the testimony of several ambassador appointees embarrassed the Obama administration, raising fresh questions about the long, bipartisan practice of key political donors and allies being rewarded with diplomatic posts.

Former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who was appointed ambassador to China, testified, “I’m no real expert on China.”

Noah Bryson Mamet admitted that he never visited Argentina, though “I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the world.”

And President Obama’s pick as ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, who raised more than a half-million dollars for Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election, spoke about the country’s president — even though it doesn’t have one.

It’s not clear any of the ambassador appointees underwent the State Department’s congressional training, but contract documents indicate that there was a previous vendor providing the service before the latest award.

Officials at AMTIS, Inc. did not respond to a phone message on Thursday. On its website, the seven-year-old company says that it “provides professional and business processing services, leader development and training services leveraging technology-based solutions and a highly talented, knowledgeable, flexible and credentialed workforce.”

The company’s other government business includes contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and two “congressional testimony training sessions” with the inspector general’s office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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