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State Department watchdog details political retaliation against 'disloyal' staffers

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Nahal ToosiTop officials in the State Department bureau that deals with international institutions engaged in “disrespectful and hostile treatment” of staffers, including harassing some over suspicions that they were “disloyal” due to their suspected political views, a federal watchdog says.

At least one top career employee was forced out of her position for inappropriate reasons, while others found themselves stripped of their duties because of their superiors’ political biases, according to the watchdog.

The findings were contained in a report published Thursday by the State Department inspector general’s office. The report, obtained in advance by POLITICO, is the first of two from the inspector general that explores allegations that President Donald Trump’s political appointees retaliated against career State Department employees. The second report is still being drafted.

Thursday’s report singles out the assistant secretary of State for the department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, Kevin Moley, as failing to stop the misbehavior despite numerous complaints. It also contains a raft of examples of alleged inappropriate actions by Mari Stull, another senior political appointee in the bureau, who has since left.

Stull and Moley were said to have “frequently berated employees, raised their voices, and generally engaged in unprofessional behavior toward staff,” according to the report.

The majority of the employees the inspector general’s office interviewed “either directly experienced hostile treatment or witnessed such treatment directed at others. In fact, one IO employee told [the Office of the Inspector General] that working with Ms. Stull involved ‘six to eight hostile interactions per day.’”

The report has been eagerly anticipated by Democrats in Congress. On Thursday, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called its findings “offensive” and said that Moley should “resign or be fired.”

Engel added that he and his colleagues “won’t stop until this culture of impunity is ended and everyone responsible faces stiff consequences.”

Moley did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but in a response to the investigation, which the inspector general included in his report, he said the misbehavior attributed to him “does not represent the person I am or have ever been.” He also insisted that many of the alleged incidents had been mischaracterized.

Stull, who served as a senior adviser to Moley, could not immediately be reached for comment. She declined the inspector general’s interview request during the investigation. Because she was no longer a federal employee — she left the State Department in January — she was not required to cooperate.

Stull, who was known to describe herself as “the Vino Vixen” because of her past keeping of a wine blog, was also alleged in past media reports as having tried to keep lists of career government staffers she considered disloyal or loyal to the president.

The report did not appear to directly address that allegation, but it noted that many of the bureau’s staffers said Moley and Stull “made positive or negative comments about employees based on perceived political views.”

For example, several career employees reported that throughout her tenure at the department, Ms. Stull referred to them or other career employees as “‘Obama holdovers,’ ‘traitors,’ or ‘disloyal.’”

Moley, however, insisted to the inspector general’s office that “the only occasion on which he heard Ms. Stull make such remarks was in reference to former political appointees whom she believed were converted to career employees.”

Career government staffers are sworn to serve in government in a nonpartisan fashion, no matter who or which party controls the White House. But many of Trump’s political appointees believe there exists a “deep state” among the career staffers that is determined to thwart the president’s agenda.

The Bureau of International Organization Affairs deals with institutions such as the United Nations. That description alone made it a target of scorn among some top Trump political appointees because of the Republican president’s general disdain for multilateral institutions.

In Stull’s case, it may not have been all about ideology. Investigators wrote that they found evidence that she tried to retaliate against two employees of the bureau who she determined had failed to help her deal with a legal issue in one of her past jobs.

Stull had previously worked at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and had filed an administrative claim regarding her time there. While still at the FAO, she tried to enlist a staffer in the State Department bureau to help with her case. The employee, after talking to his manager, consulted with legal advisers, who told him it was best not to intervene.

The report describes how, after joining the bureau, Stull went out of her way to undermine and complain about that employee and his manager.

“Ms. Stull’s criticism of these employees and her attempts to remove job responsibilities from the employee whose assistance she sought appear likely to have been based on her belief that the individuals did not provide her with sufficient assistance in her private employment dispute,” the report states.

In at least one case, the report says, there’s strong evidence that Moley forced out a high-ranking staffer — a principal deputy assistant secretary with an excellent record and extensive experience — after she raised concerns to him about Stull’s behavior and morale issues in the bureau.

“The circumstances of Assistant Secretary Moley’s removal of the PDAS suggests that he undertook a personnel action based on non-merit factors, namely, her articulation of concerns about Ms. Stull’s conduct,” the report states.

In another case, Moley and Stull are accused of deciding not to fill a bureau role that dealt with human rights because they did not like the leading candidate for the role, possibly because of the person’s relationship with the LGBTQ community. The person’s past work dealing with the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees was also said to have bothered Stull, who felt the agency was anti-Semitic.

Stull and Moley didn’t appear to understand or be willing to follow established chains of command at the State Department. They would assign duties to staffers without going through supervisors, for instance, or get upset if they weren’t immediately copied on certain papers, even though staffers were following standard procedures on when to route papers to them.

“For example, in April 2018, Ms. Stull asked a mid-level employee, without going through the employee’s supervisors, for information about another nation’s contributions to the UN,” the report states. “Ms. Stull did not believe the data provided was accurate, called the work product ‘garbage,’ and threw it at another employee.”

In one case, Moley is said to have implied, in an email, that the reason he needed to offer clearance on a document was to make sure it reflected the Trump administration’s position.

In another case, multiple witnesses said Stull and Moley had berated a junior employee over a document-routing issue, making her cry. Moley told investigators that he’d never raised his voice at an employee, and that the only time he had heard Stull raise her voice was to him.

Employees alleged that Stull even criticized some of them for clearing certain documents before she’d joined the bureau. “Two employees told OIG that Ms. Stull’s inappropriate conduct had become so pervasive that employees were afraid to put their name on any clearance pages,” the report states.

Moley, meanwhile, “criticized employees when they told him that official travel that he planned in May 2018 did not qualify for first class accommodations under the department’s travel policies and accused them of ‘not fighting hard enough’ to meet his demands,” the report states.

Stull appeared especially fixated on the career staffers’ political views, even though such employees are supposed to serve in a nonpartisan fashion. Some staffers told investigators that “Stull made positive comments about some specific career employees because they reportedly made contributions to Republican candidates.”

Stull also berated an employee because she’d accompanied a delegation of members of the Congressional Black Caucus to the United Nations. The bureau’s staffers routinely accompany such delegations regardless of its composition, the report notes. But Stull “expressed displeasure with her for accompanying the Congressional Black Caucus delegation because it consisted of only Democratic members.” She accused the employee of trying to “thwart” Trump’s agenda, the report says.

The staffer soon found herself stripped of many of her responsibilities; she eventually left the State Department.

Inspector General Steve Linick recommended that the department develop a “corrective action plan” to fix the leadership deficiencies in the bureau. He also recommended that the department consider other moves, including “disciplinary action” against Moley.

The State Department has agreed on both counts.

Linick has been investigating allegations that Trump appointees had targeted career staffers for political retaliation since spring 2018. His other cases include ones involving the alleged actions of aides to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They include one case exposed by POLITICO in which a career staffer of Iranian descent was ousted from a top policy role.

Linick’s investigation grew to cover the international organizations bureau after a June 2018 report in Foreign Policy about Stull, whom career staffers accused of deeply hostile behavior, including compiling loyalty lists.

The report issued on Thursday is based on thousands of emails and other documents, as well as investigators’ interviews with more than 40 people, including Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not listed as having been interviewed.

“Nearly every employee interviewed by OIG raised concerns about the leadership of IO and the treatment of staff,” the report states.

The report, in a footnote, says Stull sent the inspector general’s office a letter in August 2018 that raised concerns “regarding fraud, waste, and abuse, as well as allegations that she had herself experienced retaliation as a result of her efforts to address these concerns.”

Investigators have looked separately into Stull’s claims, but they noted that the probe that led to the soon-to-be-released report did not uncover information to corroborate her allegations.

Many staffers said that they approached Moley with concerns about sinking morale, but that he would minimize it, according to the report. Moley told investigators no employee had ever brought such concerns to him.

“When individuals raised concerns with Ms. Stull about her treatment of employees, she asserted that she was herself the victim of harassment and informed at least one employee that raising such concerns was pointless because the Trump administration ‘has my back,’” the report states.

The report details several attempts by the State Department’s top leaders to get Moley and Stull to adjust their behavior, but it appeared to have limited effect, according to the report.

“Approximately 50 of 300 domestic IO employees have departed IO since Assistant Secretary Moley took over its leadership, and nearly all of the former employees who OIG interviewed stated that poor leadership of the bureau contributed to their decision to depart,” the report states.

This article was originally published by Politico on August 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Nahal Toosi is a foreign affairs correspondent at POLITICO. She joined POLITICO from The Associated Press, where she reported from and/or served as an editor in New York, Islamabad, Kabul and London. She was one of the first foreign correspondents to reach Abbottabad, Pakistan, after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Prior to joining the AP, Toosi worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where she mostly covered higher education but also managed to report from Iraq during the U.S. invasion in 2003, as well as from Egypt, Thailand and Germany.

Walmart Moms’ Walkout Starts Friday

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

sarah jaffeIn 2008, political commentators made a lot of fuss about “Walmart Moms,” a demographic that was supposedly key to the election. The Walmart Mom was an updated, service-economy version of the blue-collar worker: Someone without a college degree, working and raising a family, usually white, possibly religious. She was courted heavily by both parties and perceived, at least in recent decades, to be swinging right.

Six years later, the real-life Walmart Moms are going on strike. According to a Thursday conference call hosted by theOrganization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), hundreds of mothers who work at Walmart stores throughout the country will begin walking off the job on Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet in Bentonville, Arkansas. The action will culminate in a nationwide strike on Wednesday, June 4.

Linda Haluska and Lashanda Myrick are two of those mothers, both tired of struggling to support their children on what Walmart pays. “We are Walmart moms; we’re not some political category,” said Haluska, who’s worked at the Glenwood, Illinois store for 8 years, on the call. “We’re real people who are struggling to create happy stable homes for our kids.” Walmart moms, in other words, want politicians and pundits to listen to what they really need, not pander to their perceived political biases.

Bethany Moreton, author of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, noted in a 2010 piece that Walmart itself worked to create and maintain the “Walmart Mom” identity. In her book, Moreton points out that the company’s supposed commitment to “family values,” which it expresses in both its marketing and its internal messaging, came directly from its early employees, many of them wives and mothers who’d never worked outside the home before. These early “Walmart Moms” accepted low wages for service work that they understood as part of a Christian service ethic. Caring for customers, caring for coworkers, and caring for one’s family all went together. Yet in 2014 America, the company’s faced repeated charges that it discriminates against the women it employs and retaliates against workers who dare to speak out about their treatment on the job.

Myrick, who plans on striking in addition to traveling from her home in Denver, Colorado to Bentonville to deliver her message at the shareholders’ meeting, has had enough of the company’s pretense of caring. She has two children—an 18-year-old son who graduates from high school next Tuesday, and a 12-year-old daughter—and, she tells In These Times, her meager paycheck forces her to make impossible decisions about priorities.

“A parent shouldn’t have to make a choice of who’s going to be able to get shoes this week and who’s not going to be able to get shoes this week,” she says. “I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in, so I don’t want to show them that I’m a hypocrite by not standing up for something that I believe in. [I’m] showing them that I believe in this and I’m not worried about retaliation, I’m not worried about anything to come my way.”

The tipping point for her came this November, when one of her coworkers sent her an email showing pictures of the food drive at a Canton, Ohio Walmart. Bins were set out at the store asking for workers to “Please donate food … so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” Myrick says, “My thought was, ‘Why would we hold a food drive for our employees when clearly [Walmart has] enough money to make sure all its employees will have a decent Thanksgiving?’ That right there really touched my heart and made me say, ‘I need to stand up, because this doesn’t make sense for us to be working for a billion-dollar company and we can’t even feed our families.'”

Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, noted to me in a recent interview that Walmart’s caring culture has, in the past, helped to insulate its workers from its low-wage regime, as they helped to support each other when money became tight. In recent years, however, that protection has slowly eroded. When the company began, after all, many of its workers were married to someone working full-time; the old norms of gendered work meant that women were not expected to be breadwinners, and jobs that were done by women paid less overall. Those jobs also tend to require skills, emotional and interpersonal, which women are usually socialized to possess but are not considered “hard skills” warranting better wages. Now, though, the company is not only the nation’s largest employer of women but its largest private employer, period. That means a whole lot more people are depending on those low-wage jobs to support their families—while, Ellen Bravo of Family Values at Work noted on Thursday’s call, our work-family policies are still “set in a Mad Men era.”

That means more and more workers are starting to doubt that Walmart shares their values, after all. Featherstone said that during interviews for her book, which documents the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit, plaintiff Edith Arana told her that “Walmart is like a bad boyfriend. They tell you exactly what you want to hear and that’s how you get caught up, and you just keep coming back.” Just the willingness of women to file a lawsuit against the company for sex discrimination, Featherstone said, was a huge step forward—and the strikes, which began in 2012, surprised the country.

The company made a few changes in the past year, as strikes and protests have continued to buffet it. After worker-shareholders introduced a proposal to change the company’s policy toward pregnant workers, Walmart issued a new one this March, saying that pregnant employees “may be eligible for reasonable accommodation” if they have a temporary disability caused by their pregnancy. Women’s groups and workers said that the company’s earlier policy, which did not allow for such accommodation, violated federal law. The corporation also recently determined that workers can search for available shifts in order to pick up more hours.

But, Haluska says, those changes aren’t enough. She and the other members of OUR Walmart are demanding that the company pay its workers at least $25,000 a year, create full-time jobs and stop its retaliation against employees who go on strike or speak up at work. In addition, activists are building a campaign asking shareholders to vote against Rob Walton, scion of the billionaire family that founded the company, as chairman of the board. Instead, their resolution, which will be introduced and backed by union funds, calls for an independent chair.

It’s going to take a lot of people standing up to fight, but Myrick does believe that Walmart will eventually change when they realize OUR Walmart is not going to back down.

When asked what she would say if, on her trip to Bentonville, she got a chance to sit down with new Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, famously a former hourly associate himself, Myrick responds, “I would ask him where his morals are.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

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