Investigation of ATF Falsely Classifying Jobs Likely to Continue

Classification actions at ATF resulted in overpayments to employees of $20 million (so far). The investigation of the agency’s actions appear likely to continue.

False Job Classification in ATF—$20 Million in Extra Costs Over Five Years

Recently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was found to have paid tens of millions to employees by improperly classifying their jobs. The situation was uncovered as the result of a whistleblower revelation.

ATF is a law enforcement agency in the Department of Justice. The agency describes itself as an agency “that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology.”

According to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigated the complaints, two whistleblowers from ATF’s human resources office revealed that ATF was unlawfully providing law enforcement pay and benefits to agents and investigators that were not in law enforcement positions. Some of the employees receiving these benefits were in the human resources office.

According to OSC, the positions were intentionally misclassified as law enforcement jobs. This resulted in ATF overpaying up to $20 million over a five-year period. The actual cost may have been much higher as the unlawful classification scheme was a common practice at the agency for much longer than the five-year time frame reviewed by investigators.

OPM subsequently suspended the authority of ATF to classify law enforcement positions. 

Senator Ernst “Calls Out ATF Bureaucrats” and Asks DOJ IG to Investigate Malfeasance at ATF

While the Office of Special Counsel has closed the case, it is unlikely that the case is over.

Last week, Senator Joni Ernst issued a press release and sent a letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Justice. It reads, in part:

…I remain concerned about the limited scope of the remediating actions. According to the whistleblowers, OSC’s report ‘did not adequately capture the extent of ATF’s illegal practices or the full impact of the harm.’ In fact, the whistleblowers believe ‘there were many more misclassified positions than were captured in [OPM’s] audit and that the agency significantly underreported the waste directly and tangentially associated with the widespread practice of misclassifying positions,’ including failing to account for the impact of the wrongdoing on ATF’s non-law enforcement personnel.

The original FedSmith article noted, “There is no indication if OPM or ATF will look at the benefits that have been improperly paid to the employees who have retired with benefits only open to law enforcement personnel or who have otherwise been collecting improper pay and benefits as a result of the misclassification.”

The letter from Senator Ernst noted that the Special Counsel has already closed the case despite his misgivings that the full extent of the false classification has been uncovered. She contends, “more work remains to be done on this important issue to ensure the ATF’s culture of gross mismanagement of taxpayer funds is fully examined and remediated to stamp out any willingness to abuse the public trust which may exist amongst ATF bureaucrats.”

To determine the full extent of the false classification activities at the agency, Senator Ernst wants to ensure the full extent of the inappropriate payments and that “the American taxpayers are fully compensated for any losses they have borne resulting from the wrongdoing the whistleblowers have unearthed, as well as to hold those responsible to account.”

The Senator is asking that the IG investigation include:

  1. Working with the whistleblowers to ensure the scope of your investigation fully encompasses the alleged wrongdoing;
  2. Ensuring, to the extent legally permitted, excess pay and benefits found to have been
    improperly provided are recovered from ATF personnel; and
  3. Recommendations for disciplinary action up to and including termination, as well as criminal referrals where appropriate, for those ATF personnel implicated in improper or illegal activity.

Her letter also states, “It is incumbent upon all public servants to act with the utmost levels of professionalism but when bureaucrats abuse the public trust it is the responsibility of watchdogs to hold the bad actors accountable for their malfeasance.”

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47