A recent Government Accountability Office report found that 32 politically appointed Justice Department employees had transitioned to career DOJ positions during the last years of the Bush administration, a process known as “burrowing in.” In two instances involving DOJ appointees, proper protocol was not followed in the transition process, the GAO found.
The GAO report, released Tuesday, looked at cases across the federal government from May 1, 2005 through May 30, 2009. The report found that 139 political appointees transitioned to career jobs during that time period, with the largest number of cases occurring at the DOJ.
Burrowing in, sometimes also called “digging in,” is not unique to the George W. Bush administration. The practice has gone on for years and is tolerated by both political parties. It can represent an effort by political appointees to move to a safer career track in order to keep a government job leading up to or after a new president is elected.
In a 2000 report on the same topic, the GAO found that 57 political appointees in the Clinton administration converted to career positions from October 1998 to June 2000, with 13 — the most of any agency — transitioning at the Justice Department.
Tuesday’s report did not condemn the practice, noting that political appointees “can bring valuable skills and experience to the federal workforce, and the merit-based conversion of political appointees to career positions can be a useful means to achieving a highly qualified workforce.”
Most of the DOJ cases examined in the report occurred while Bush was in office, including some just a few days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Some of the employees may have switched at the beginning of Obama’s term and may have been approved by Obama’s Justice Department appointees.
According to the report, in January 2007 an unnamed special assistant to the Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division was allegedly improperly converted into an Assistant U.S. Attorney position in the Southern District of Florida.
The GAO report said that most of the officials conducting interviews for the position recommended against the hire, and one official noted that they had interviewed at least two superior candidates. The officials “noted the eventual selectee’s lack of experience, that he did not appear to stay in any job for an extended period of time, and observed that his writing sample did not contain much original writing, but was boilerplate,” according to the report.
Even though the former special assistant was viewed as a weak candidate, he was hired as a career Assistant U.S. Attorney position after serving on a six-month detail. “This action appears to violate the prohibition against granting unauthorized advantages to individuals in the hiring process,” the report concluded.
In another instance, the U.S. Marshal for the Middle District of Georgia authorized a vacancy announcement for a career position for which she later applied and was selected to fill. “Although there is no evidence to suggest that the eventual selectee was involved in the actual selection process, this appearance of a violation of ethical standards calls this conversion action into question,” the report said, adding that it was a potential violation of ethical standards.
The Justice Department told the GAO that the agency’s ethics officer “is gathering information on this conversion and, based on the information she receives, her office will take the appropriate next steps.”
While the individual is not named in the report, the GAO noted that the individual was appointed U.S. Marshal in August 2002 — a description that fits Theresa Rodgers who was appointed U.S. Marshal for the Middle District of Georgia at that time.
U.S. Marshals spokesman Jeff Carter confirmed that Rodgers is still with the U.S. Marshals service but declined to comment on the report.
“It would be inappropriate for the U.S. Marshals Service to comment on the GAO report since, as is indicated in the report, the agency is conducting an ethical standards inquiry for potential departmental review,” Carter said in a statement.
In the majority of cases examined, DOJ used proper protocol, according to the report. Some of those cases include:
- The Director of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service became the Director of the Office of Self-Governance in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in January 2007.
- In another instance, the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics became the Deputy Director for Planning in the Planning Office of the Director’s office of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2006 and received a $10,000 boost in salary.
- A Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of the Assistant Attorney General became the Deputy Associate Solicitor for Mineral Resources in the Office of the Solicitor in July 2007 and received a $9,000 salary boost.
- The U.S. Marshall for the District of Nebraska took the position of Criminal Investigator in the Judicial Security Division of the Office of Protective Operations of the United States Marshals Service, along with a $10,000 cut in salary in July 2008.
- The Supervisory Criminal Investigator in Superior Court for the United States Marshals Service became a Criminal Investigator in the Human Resources Division of the Training Academy of the United States Marshals Service in 2008.
- The U.S. Attorney at Charlotte Headquarters of the Department of Justice became an Attorney Adviser in Western Charlotte Headquarters in March 2009, keeping the same salary.
- The Chief Of Staff in the Office of the General Counsel, became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne, Wyo., just before the end of the Bush administration.
- A Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Chief of Staff in the Office of Legal Policy became an Attorney Adviser in the Office of Legal Policy in December 2007.
- A Deputy Administrator in the Office of Justice Programs became an Assistant U.S. Attorney for The District of Columbia in the Executive Office for United States Attorneys in November 2006.
- An Attorney Adviser in the Drug Enforcement Task Force became an Attorney-Adviser in the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys General Counsel Office in March 2009, keeping the same salary.
Additional reporting by David Johnston.
The full report is embedded below.