Why It’s So Hard to Fire Federal Executives — This Law Group Helps Bad Apples
The Senior Executives Association (SEA) represents members of the federal Senior Executive Service (SES), the highest-ranked career managers who are paid between $150,200 and $205,700 annually. In return for the generous compensation, the more than 7,000 career SESers in federal departments and agencies can be transferred anywhere and fired more easily than other career civil servants.
At least that was the idea when Congress created the SES as part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. But then along came the SEA and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Shaw Bransford & Roth. Barely a handful of SESers are actually fired in a typical year.
In recent months the firm has represented Sharon Helman, Diana Rubens and Kim Graves, Department of Veterans Affairs SESers who government investigators found used their jobs for personal gain.
Rubens and Graves worked for VA in Washington, then pressured job-holders in their hometowns to transfer to other locations against their will so the women could take their jobs. The duo got huge relocation payments to move to jobs with less responsibility in lower cost-of-living areas, with no loss in pay. A new, high-level job was also created for Graves’ romantic partner at Washington rates, then she was allowed to work from home at the couple’s new home in Pennsylvania.
Rubens first started paying dues to SEA — making her eligible for the law firm’s discount — in spring 2015, about the time the IG was probing her. The IG’s final report subsequently found that “Graves inappropriately used her position of authority for personal and financial benefit.”
The firm represented both women when the MSPB blocked the VA from imposing discipline on either of them. The VA deputy secretary was so astonished by the rulings — delivered within the same month — that he crafted a plan to reduce MSPB’s authority. The SEA launched a campaign against the plan as a result.
Sometimes the firm’s never-concede-wrongdoing strategy has backfired. Helman, director of the Phoenix VA hospital where dozens of veterans died waiting for care, repeatedly appealed her firing even as news cameras recorded her ignoring reporters’ questions as she drove off in a Mercedes. Helman even managed to force the government to restore her SES performance bonus after the scandal broke.
But thanks to the firm’s dogged defense of Helman, government investigators kept digging for other ways to fire her. They hit pay dirt when they found evidence that Helman took bribes. Ultimately, she pleaded guilty to a felony.
Roth continues to represent felon Helman in arguing that she should be restored to her job running the Phoenix VA facility.
The firm’s business model depends on having endless avenues to fight firings and other disciplinary actions before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and in the federal courts. If a federal employee of any rank is accused of serious misconduct, odds are good the firm will take the case. And that’s where the SEA comes in.
For Debra Roth, who is both a partner at the law firm and SEA’s general counsel, the trade group lends cache, a platform for media appearances and a way to impact policy. SEA officials routinely testify before Congress claiming to represent all SESers, most of whom work hard and honestly.
But Roth was never a government executive and her day-to-day work usually involves championing the top scandal-plagued bureaucrats. Jason Briefel, SEA’s interim president, who works at the firm rather than SEA’s office across town, has also never been a government executive.
There are nine employees listed on SEA’s website, but its personnel and resources are closely intertwined with the law firm, which it pays as its largest contractor, tax forms show.
Before he died in 2013, William Bransford, also a partner at the law firm, did double-duty at SEA. SEA was founded by the law firm’s other named partner, Jerry Shaw, in 1980.
Roth has a weekly column in the Federal Times where she dispenses advice on thwarting government ethics probes with observations like “the job consequences of truthfully answering the [Inspector General’s] expected questions are less severe than you may think … The duty to cooperate in an investigation is only the duty to show up for the interview.” She uses scare quotes around the terms “scandal” and “oversight” committee.
SEA collects dues from government execs and publishes a newsletter that has said “just because an SES employee fell short of the higher standard of a supervisory position does not mean he or she should be removed.” The SEA contracts with lobbyists from the Roth law firm to push Congress for such policies.
On the SEA’s tax form, it said it has a conflict of interest policy but did not “regularly and consistently monitor and enforce compliance.”
By joining SEA, members get one hour of free consultation with the law firm on misconduct cases, and a 10 percent discount on a legal retainer.
“Since its inception, the law firm has focused its law practice on representing individual federal employees, including career senior executives, in employment matters. These individuals retain the law firm separately for legal representation in their employment matters. SEA does not provide individual federal employees with legal representation,” Roth said told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Thanks to cases like those of Helman and Rubens, SEA is often quoted in the media saying things like people won’t apply for $180,000 jobs unless there is little risk of being fired for misconduct. Last year, SEA’s spokeswoman said it would only support taking away a manager’s pension after an on-the-job felony conviction.
Helman meets that criteria, but the firm seeks her full restoration. Lance Robinson, Helman’s deputy, was also slated for firing, but remained on paid leave for nearly two years until the firm got his job restored. He was also represented by the Roth law firm.
“You’re going to have some bad apples and those people should be fired if they’re doing something that bad,” SEA has said.