Lerner taking Fifth undermines confidence in IRS
Like plaids with stripes, federal employees wearing the Fifth Amendment don't look good.
We all have the right to wear clothes that clash. And everyone in this country has the right not to provide testimony that could be used against them.
But when federal workers invoke that right, as Lois Lerner did at a House hearing Wednesday, it comes with a cost. A public servant who refuses to answer questions from Congress about the public's business clashes with the public's expectations.
By asserting her right, she further undermined the credibility of her employer, the Internal Revenue Service, an agency whose reputation has been beaten bloody by the scandal over the targeting of conservative organizations.
Perhaps it's not fair, but it is inevitable -- and understandable -- that Lerner's refusal to answer questions gives the impression she has something to hide about her involvement in that operation.
Ironically, Lerner, the IRS director of exempt organizations, seems to be the only one with a spot unsoiled by the dirt that now covers the agency. When she learned that IRS staffers were using inappropriate criteria, she "immediately directed that the criteria be changed," according to an inspector general's report.
Yet, as she acknowledged, members of Congress "have accused me of providing false information" and The Post's Fact Checker has awarded her four Pinocchios, signifying "whoppers" for "misstatements and weasely wording."
Actually, Lerner did testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, but only through her prepared statement. Her lawyer, William W. Taylor III, had tried to get her excused from the hearing because of an onling Justice Department criminal investigation, saying in a letter to the panel that having her appear "merely to assert her Fifth Amendment privilege would have no purpose other than to embarrass or burden her."
Lerner seemed more defiant than embarrassed.
Succeeding in having it both ways, she provided her side of the story, but refused to answer questions, raising some heated objections.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee," she said. "And while I would very much like to answer
your committee's questions today, I have been advised by my counsel to assert my constitutional right not to testify or answer questions related to the subject matter of this hearing .
"Because I'm asserting my right not to testify I know people will assume I've done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic rights of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals and that's the protection I'm invoking today, thank
Minutes later, she was gone.
Hagel directs Pentagon to seek new software for health records
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Wednesday directed the Pentagon to seek new healthcare management software that would better integrate military health care records with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The inability of the Department of Defense and the VA to develop a single, integrated electronic health record has been the source of much frustration on Capitol Hill. In February, the departments announced they were abandoning efforts to create a single system.
A bipartisan group of House representatives sent a letter Wednesday to President Obama urging him to intervene and "end the back and forth" between the two departments. "Select a system, pick a path, and move forward," said the letter, signed by committee chairman Jeff Miller, (R-Fla.), ranking Democrat Michael Michaud of Maine, and 18 other members of the committee.
The Defense Department said it is seeking new software via competitive bid from the private sector that will improve continuity of care as military members transition into civilian life.
"Our service members and veterans, and their families, expect and deserve a seamless system to administer the benefits they have earned," Hagel said in a statement.
Hagel and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki were to meet with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday afternoon to update them on efforts to eliminate the VA claims backlog.
The House letter sent to the White House noted that many claims are "dramatically delayed" by the length of time it takes the Department of Defense to provide the VA with health care records, and asked for Obama's "personal commitment" to improve cooperation.
Members of the committee also announced Wednesday that they have completed a legislative package of 10 bills they say will boost the VA's efforts to end the claims backlog.
One of the bills requires the Defense Department to provide certified, complete and electronic records to VA within 21 days.
"The backlog of claims at the VA is a stain on the conscience of our country—and it is our responsibility to promote innovation and to empower the VA to reduce and eliminate the backlog once and for all," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference where she and others urged passage of the package.
New IRS boss sends message to workers
Admitting that workers have faced "a difficult last few days," Werfel gave a stern, direct message to the rank-and-file:
"The missteps uncovered in the recent Inspector General report are inexcusable and cannot be tolerated by any of us," he wrote. "We have a solemn duty to act as responsible, fair and impartial stewards of the taxpayers' dollars. As someone who has spent my entire career as a civil servant in government, this is a duty that I hold dear, and any deviation from it is unacceptable to me, as I know it is to you."
Here is Werfel's full message:
From: *Acting Commissioner Werfel
Sent: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 10:32 AM
To: &&Employees All
Subject: Restoring Trust and Charting a Path ForwardTeam As we start on a new journey together here at the IRS, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the path forward.It has obviously been a difficult last few days for all of you. There is rightly concern among the public about the trust that they place in the IRS to administer the tax code fairly and help America's taxpayers understand and meet their tax responsibilities. Working together, it is up to us to restore that trust and ensure that the IRS remains the exceptional, indispensable organization it has always been.The first step in this effort must be to get to the bottom of the recent allegations regarding the criteria to determine eligibility for tax-exempt status. The missteps uncovered in the recent Inspector General report are inexcusable and cannot be tolerated by any of us. We have a solemn duty to act as responsible, fair and impartial stewards of the taxpayers' dollars. As someone who has spent my entire career as a civil servant in government, this is a duty that I hold dear, and any deviation from it is unacceptable to me, as I know it is to you. That is why we must work together with the Inspector General, the Justice Department, and Congress to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for the inappropriate activities that occurred and that we correct the breakdowns in process and oversight that allowed them to occur.At the same time, we must keep our eyes on our critical missions of fair application of the tax laws and effective operation of the systems that fund our government. That mission, and your work, are of critical importance. With that in mind, in the coming days, I plan to begin a review of our operations, processes and practices to focus on how we deliver on our mission today and how we can make improvements in the future. The American people expect the IRS to operate efficiently, effectively, transparently and with the utmost accountability to the taxpayer. And where that is not the case, we will take swift actions to correct it.The President and Secretary Lew have asked for a report by the end of next month about our progress on these efforts. And my first step in that process is to begin meeting with many of you and ask for your ideas, advice and counsel. The people of the IRS are what make this organization what it is and guide the incredibly important work that we do on behalf of the American people. Particularly at this time, we have an indispensable role to play in ensuring the nation's tax system is administered with the utmost fairness and integrity. Our path forward must be with this priority front of mind. We all take tremendous pride in what we do for the American public, and it is that pride and commitment that I trust will guide us going forward. For example, as the nation comes together to support the victims of the devastating tornados in Oklahoma, we should all feel a sense of pride that IRS is actively supporting the recovery effort and doing our part to help.I look forward to meeting many of you in the coming days. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly with any thoughts and perspective on what we can do together to help this organization continue to thrive and serve the public.RegardsDanny WerfelActing Commissioner
Who is Danny Werfel? Read our recent profile of him here.
House Democrats' report says power grid is vulnerable to cyber attacks
A House Democrat this week released a report that could help resurrect bipartisan legislation he sponsored three years ago to protect the nation's power grid from cyber attacks and other threats.
The analysis, spearheaded by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and released Tuesday, says a lack of compliance with voluntary security standards has made the electric grid "highly vulnerable to attacks from Iran and North Korea" and additional dangers such as geomagnetic storms from solar activity.
In 2010, Markey introduced the GRID Act, which would have given the federal government greater authority to impose standards on electric utilities. That proposal, cosponsored by Rep. Mike Upton (R-Mich.), passed the House but never made its way out of committee in the Senate.
Markey is renewing his efforts to enact grid-security legislation. His report -- which surveyed more than 150 utilities, cooperatives and federal entities owning major pieces of the electric system -- showed that the power network is the target of daily cyber attacks, with one utility saying it faced 10,000 attempted attacks each month.
Two regulatory bodies currently set grid-security guidelines. The industry-run North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) proposes standards and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gives them final approval.
Consensus is required between the two groups to mandate protections, and proposed standards that do not receive support from both NERC and FERC can become voluntary.
Critics say the process of reaching consensus can take years, lagging far behind the pace at which new threats develop. They also contend that it leads to the lowest common denominator of what the electricity industry is willing to accept.
The GRID Act would have allowed FERC to act alone in requiring safeguards for the nation's electric system when threats are serious or imminent. Markey's office this week said the congressman still stands behind that measure.
"With one well-placed keystroke, Americans could be plunged into darkness and chaos through the damage to our electric grid," Markey said Tuesday. "Foreign enemies are employing Web warriors to attack our way of life, and it's time that our actions respond to the potential threat."
Markey's report, co-produced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said the majority of industry- and municipally-owned utilities indicated they do not comply with voluntary standards and have not taken concrete steps to reduce vulnerability to geomagnetic storms.
"We need to push electric utilities to enlist all of the measures they can now, and push for stronger standards in Congress that will keep our economy and our country safe from cyber warfare," Markey said in a statement Tuesday.
But some industry groups have resisted moves to grant greater authority to FERC. The American Public Power Association issued a statement Tuesday saying utilities are already subject to an extensive list of mandatory cyber-security guidelines.
"As an industry, we continue to closely coordinate at high levels both amongst members of our industry and with the federal government on cyber and physical security," the group's statement said.
The association also criticized the Markey-Waxman report on Tuesday, saying many of the questions from the survey were so specific and confidential that answering them would have posed a security risk.
"Drawing such broad conclusions about the electric sector's and public power's level of security is therefore misleading," the group said. "We are placing, and will continue to place, the highest priority on ensuring the security and resiliency of our electric system."
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President to nominate acting chief Dan Tangherlini to lead GSA
Thirteen months after he took over the troubled General Services Administration as acting chief, Dan Tangherlini will be nominated by President Obama Wednesday for Senate confirmation as the agency's official administrator.
"Dan Tangherlini has worked tirelessly to restore the trust of the American people in the agency and provide them with the highest level of service," said a White House official Tuesday night who could not be identified because the nomination was not public.
Tangherlini, 45, was chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management at the Treasury Department when the president moved him quickly into the top spot at GSA in April 2012, days after a report by the agency's inspector general revealed an embarrassing episode of wasteful spending.
Officials in the Public Buildings Service, which oversees federal real estate, had organized a junket off the Las Vegas strip for 300 employees in the department's West Coast outposts.
The $823,000 conference featured a mind reader, after-hours parties in loft suites, lavish receptions and award ceremonies in four days of revelry. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and her top deputies were forced out, along with more than a dozen other senior executives and managers.
Tangherlini declared an end to what he described as a culture of excess that tried too hard to emulate the private sector. He reorganized the buildings service and the agency's vast department responsible for buying supplies for federal agencies, cutting down on redundancies and costs and stressing accountability.
He also led a government-wide effort to slash federal travel to conferences and unnecessary training seminars, and has focused on reducing the government's real estate footprint to save money.
His administration may have gone too far in disciplining at least one executive after the Las Vegas scandal. In March, the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled that Paul Prouty, who managed federal buildings in the Rocky Mountain region and was fired, was not guilty of misconduct. The board ordered Prouty reinstated. GSA has appealed the ruling.
Last week, in a follow-up report on the Las Vegas case, Inspector General Brian Miller reported that the agency's bonus system for senior executives doled out excessive awards, some based on questionable merit. Tangherlini has halted the program that came in for the most criticism, and slashed bonuses and awards in general.
He is among the most respected managers in government, having served as the District's administrator and deputy mayor and as interim general manager of Metro before joining the Obama administration. He also held several jobs in the Clinton administration. He is expected to enjoy broad support in the Senate at his confirmation hearings.