How Government Bureaucrats Smeared Ken Tomlinson

The official government investigation of the public official seemed damning—running a private business from his government office, improperly placing a friend on the government payroll and billing the government twice for services performed. Although making the report public violated federal law, the investigation was performed by the State Department inspector general and reported to Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd (Conn.) and California Representatives Howard Berman and Tom Lantos, one of whom leaked it to the media as Berman made a summary of the report public.

The media went wild, but somehow, the fact that the Department of Justice had reviewed the evidence previously and refused to pursue criminal charges was lost in the frenzy. The official was smeared by the release of the report but was unable to answer it fully because he had not been advised whether further charges could be filed.

Gotcha Game

Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was earlier head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was selected by the President to shake up the government broadcasting agencies to make them more open to diverse views. Studies have shown that public broadcasting was overwhelmingly liberal rather than balanced, and Tomlinson’s supposed sin, according to the report, was to push for a Wall Street Journal weekly public television program to give the other side one lonely voice on the public airways.

Government bureaucrats do not like to be told what to do by their bosses, especially something new, even though their political leaders clearly have the legal authority and responsibility to direct them. The investigation by the inspector general (IG) was triggered by a bureaucrat who approached the Democrats with a suspicion there was something fishy going on, meaning he did not like it. For the uninitiated, leaks are the weapon of choice in Washington’s lethal and perverse bureaucracy gotcha game.

Start with the charge of putting a friend on the payroll. As a former head of government personnel can attest, more than 90% of mid- and upper-level promotions in the government are by a name request for a specific individual. A Merit Systems Protection Board study found 40% of managers admitted seeing examples of manipulating the system to hire favorites. So it is fine for the bureaucracy, even if it is against the law, but political appointees are supposed to hire enemies or strangers? The report charged there was no competition to fill the position but ignored that political executives have legal means to appoint assistants outside the competitive service. At the end, the only charge that stuck was that the appointee did not file paperwork. After all the legal bluster, he simply forgot to intone, “Simon says.”

Absurd Charges

How about the supposed double-billing? Tomlinson was charged with billing 14 days for work at both the board and the corporation. But he was a part-time employee of both, and it is not unreasonable to assume he worked for both many days. At most, this looks like a clerical mix-up and should simply be addressed by accountants for possible adjustments between the two rather than calling in the inspectors.

The charge of running a business was even sillier. Tomlinson lives in Middleburg. Va., outside Washington with an adjoining horse farm called Sandy Bayou Stables. His most successful racehorse won $140,000 over a few years. Most of his horses run out of the money, and it looks like a hobby at a big net loss. How was he supposedly running a “horse-racing operation” from his office? The IG concluded he devoted “an average of one e-mail and two and a half minutes a day” to his horses from his government office. Under this standard, every federal employee would be in jail. Dodd, Berman and Lantos certainly devote more time than that on politics and personal business from their office. In any event, Tomlinson spent more time on government broadcasting business from his farm and residences that he did on horse business from the office.

Mired in Inefficiency

Tomlinson’s case is by no means unique, although extreme. Bureaucratic self-protection rules and overwhelms efficient management. The Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security, with half of the government employees, are working with antiquated procedures because their unions successfully sued to block congressionally mandated efficiencies. Federal judges have now ruled that no reforms can be made without major changes in the proposed procedures, including getting the approval of the same unions who sued to stop all reform!

While the system remains mired in inefficiency, a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis study found the average federal civilian worker receives $106,379 a year in total compensation—twice the $53,289 wages and benefits earned in the private sector. Unions retort the federal jobs are more skilled, referencing a government counter study. Yet, that study does not include the full cost of the enormous civil service pension, which would have even that flawed study finding higher federal pay for the same type of work. Since 2000, government pay has increased 38%, more than double the private rate of 14%.

Citizens pay dearly for their bureaucracy, but they get games and politics instead of efficient work. The bad news is the Bush Administration recently lost the official whom called the government’s “pay-for-performance warrior.” George Nesterczuk, senior Office of Personnel Management (OPM) official responsible for the Defense Department reform proposal and past top OPM and House expert for two decades, retired to union charges he was the “federal workers’ own Dark Lord” for his determination to make government work efficiently by pushing performance management on a recalcitrant bureaucracy.

The forces resisting change in the federal government are enormous and even the legendary Nesterczuk departs with less than complete success. One cannot imagine how it will work at all without him.