Sen. Johnson seeks OSC review of ‘burrowing’ at CFPB

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has asked the Office of Special Counsel to investigate the details of Leandra English's move from a political post at the Office of Pe...

A career employee at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who’s previously sparred with the Trump administration over the leadership of her agency now finds herself under the scrutiny of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairman.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has asked the Office of Special Counsel to investigate the details of Leandra English’s move from a political post at the Office of Personnel Management to a career role at CFPB toward the end of the Obama administration.

In the Jan. 4 letter to OSC’s Special Counsel Henry Kerner, Johnson said OPM rushed to approve English’s conversion to a career role, and claimed the agency’s decision raised conflict of interest questions and was based on “information that included errors.”

Johnson’s letter marks another layer of scrutiny for English, who was tapped by former CFPB Director Richard Cordray in November 2017 to serve as the agency’s acting director. But the White House, citing the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, claimed it had the right to choose an acting director, and selected Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to temporarily lead the agency. A federal judge sided with the Trump administration’s decision in a December ruling.

“According to information provided by OPM, it appears that OPM hastily approved Ms. English’s conversion in the waning days of the Obama administration based on information that included errors, potential conflicts of interest, and insufficient independent investigation,” Johnson wrote.

The Johnson letter sounds the alarm on the threat of political appointees under a former administration “burrowing” into the career civil service — an issue that has been raised on several fronts by Republican lawmakers.

“Burrowing threatens to undermine the merit-based principles that serve as the foundation of the civil service because it allows political staff to be favored over potentially more qualified candidates,” Johnson wrote. “The Office of Special Counsel is charged with investigating hiring decisions based on political affiliation, which is a violation of civil service laws.”

Before writing to OSC about the issue, Johnson first contacted Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan and requested more information from the agency about English’s conversion to a career civil service role. McGettigan wrote back to Johnson in December, saying that OPM’s decision was “free from political influence.”

However, Johnson claimed that the vetting process for English’s conversion may have been rushed. Among his arguments, the senator said OPM approved the conversion application in such a short period of time — in the span of 14 business days, over the holidays, in December 2016. The senator also claims that OPM misstated some of the details of English’s new career role at CFPB, including the size of her salary.

The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, have reported on the frequency of burrowing on several occasions. In 2016, GAO found that between 2010 and 2015, only 69 employees across 28 agencies converted from political appointments to career civil service jobs. While GAO does note that conversions must meet merit systems standards, the agency also said they’re “an appropriate and valuable means of achieving a highly skilled workforce.”

In December 2016, the Partnership for Public Service also wrote a blog post about the frequency of political burrowing.

“While there is potential for abuse of political appointees converting to career jobs, the evidence to date from the GAO studies suggests the practice given the number of appointees and the size of the federal workforce, has been limited, and that abuse of the process has not been a major issue,” Zach Regen, a former Partnership for Public Service fellow, wrote.

An OPM spokesperson told Federal News Radio in a statement that the agency stands by its handling of all conversions of political appointees to career roles.

“OPM is confident in the integrity of our process for reviewing appointments of current or recent political appointees to competitive, career senior executive, or non-political excepted service positions,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, GAO recently reviewed our process and our decisions in the 99 requests we received from agencies between January 1, 2010 and March 17, 2016. In all OPM-approved cases, GAO concurred with OPM’s decisions.”

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