The Media and the Civil Service: So What Really Happened?

Sometimes being a federal official can be challenging. Here is another perspective on a story that we ran earlier this week about a federal employee who returned to work after a conviction for public indecency.

Earlier this week, FedSmith linked to a Macon Telegraph story concerning the reemployment of a Federal worker who had been convicted of public indecency in a Federal District Court. There are a number of very interesting things about this story. First, why is this guy back at work? Second, why are the spokespeople for the Air Base hedging their comments? Third, but not least, what’s the reporter telling us in the story?

Let me start by saying I have no first hand knowledge of the events leading to the conviction or the Agency response. I’m, however, always fascinated by the way the media deals with the operational side of the Federal government and how smart (sometimes) they are in structuring the story.

I can think of a number of reasons why this guy was returned to work, most of which center around the assumption that the employee may yet be fired and the agency is preparing a proposed removal letter as the ink dries on the Telegraph’s article. Of course this begs a number of questions such as why wasn’t he suspended until the letter could get written on the basis he may present a danger to coworkers. The personnel official interviewed in the story said absolutely nothing about the case.

His generic comment about processes, however, was intriguing but may be easily misread by readers of the story. What this guy knows is that the Privacy Act severely limits what information he may disclose and no matter what he ain’t payin’ no $5000.00 fine. If the worker is eventually canned and a decision issues from a third party (one of the three mentioned by the personnel guy), the decision becomes public information. Of course, by then it’s old news. The military officer has a different problem altogether. His leadership training requires that he makes sure to say and do the right thing all the time yet he is under the same restraints as the civilian. Catch-22 is alive and well.

There’s a tool out there, rarely used, that can trump all of this hoohah. If the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA), the prosecutor, had asked the Federal District Court Judge to bar the convicted person from Federal employment and the judge so orders, then game, set and match would have been over no, at least administrative, appeal. I once did some labor relations assistance work for the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. One of the AUSAs asked me why this kind of petition wasn’t requested more often by Agencies. I told her that I wasn’t aware of that option and have been spending the 15 years since telling everyone who would listen that there’s a way not to have to deal with arbitrators, MSPB or EEOC if you are likely to get a criminal conviction. Got it?

Let’s hit the last question about what the reporter is telling us. It’s obvious that the reporter catches the paradox that a criminal convicted of a sexual offense is now back at the scene of the crime and in proximity of the victim. He also catches that nobody in management is saying why. His story points all of that out while highlighting what appear to be disingenuous statements or bureaucratic evasions. The military guy comes off sounding like the coach of a losing team giving a locker room pep talk while the “personnel official” appears a candidate for Former Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award. Also interesting is that he names all the names including that of a contractor employee, also a convicted sex offender. At the end of the story, the reader is left to ask, “exactly what the HELL is going on out there at Robins?” My guess is that was exactly the reporter’s goal.

My other guess is that there are two very smart Feds at Robins, one military, the other civilian, who aren’t about to let the Macon Telegraph get their goat. The article and what it insinuates is shouldered by these guys as another part of the job.

Any opinion expressed herein is mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.