A spate of sudden firings at the House Homeland Security Committee last month adds to a pattern of extensive turnover that has left members and staffers questioning the panel’s leadership and its commitment to border security and counterterrorism policy.
A new staff director for Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas cleaned house at the committee, dismissing five top policy staffers on June 20, including his top advisers on border security and counterterrorism, both of whom McCaul hired less than two years ago. There have been at least five other staff departures since McCaul became chairman last year.
The brain drain comes a few months after McCaul hired Brendan Shields to reorganize the panel as staff director — and leaves the full committee without some of its most experienced policy aides against the backdrop of a crisis of Central American children illegally crossing the Southern border and instability in Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Middle East.
“I kind of wonder if Brendan Shields has turned on a television in the last six months or picked up a New York Times,” said a former government official, who was not among the fired staffers but knows people involved with the committee. “Is he not paying attention to what’s going on in Syria? In Libya? . . . Has he turned on CNN and seen the holding pens with thousands of children coming across the border?”
McCaul and his spokesman declined to comment, and an email sent to Shields on July 11 garnered an automatic reply noting he was out of the country, but expected to return Monday. Shields was in Brazil during the FIFA World Cup, according to sources.
Interviews with a dozen current and former staffers and members close to the committee revealed that members have been told that the reorganization is meant to empower the subcommittees and reduce redundancies and staff overlap to save money. Yet the firings are only one part of what has been a wider staff exodus from the committee over the last year.
The staffers laid off on June 20 were Tom Leonard, a border security adviser and retired Army officer who used to work for Department of Defense Assistant Secretary Paul Stockton; Josh Katz, a counterterrorism adviser who is an Army veteran and former CIA operations officer; and Dirk Maurer, a counsel to the committee and a former Marine intelligence officer. Also let go were two holdovers from former Chairman Peter T. King of New York: longtime intelligence staffer Meghann Peterlin and Jennifer Arangio, who has been a counsel on the committee since 2006.
When McCaul took the reins of the committee at the beginning of the 113th Congress, he brought in staffers such as Leonard and Katz to shepherd his pet issues, particularly border security. But that staff structure is being abandoned and he will now rely more on the subcommittee staff. Paul Anstine, staff director under Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Candice S. Miller of Michigan, for instance, was instrumental in crafting the border security bill that passed the committee last year. And King is visible on counterterrorism issues.
But others caution that with these staffers ousted, McCaul has lost years of institutional experience. Sources note the fired aides have field and combat experience, and without his own cadre of policy experts, McCaul may be less able to affect legislation, especially if disputes arise with his subcommittee heads, to whom the subcommittee staff are ultimately loyal.
Left behind in the stead of the fired staffers is a pared-down unit that will become more involved in investigative work, headed by Nick Palarino. Sources in and around the committee are not yet clear about what the fledgling team will investigate.
And three more staffers recently quit their posts with the committee: transportation policy adviser Bob Caretta, deputy chief of staff Mike Geffroy and communications director Charlotte Sellmyer. Chief financial officer Dawn Criste also recently put in for retirement. Two more full committee staffers, Brett DeWitt and Bradley Saull, were absorbed into the subcommittees.
The staff turnover comes after McCaul’s longtime chief of staff Greg Hill departed earlier this year. Some members speculated the staff reorganization was in response to Hill’s tenure. He had clashed with junior members over amendments to the panel’s border security bill last year. The members had complained to McCaul that the committee was too top-heavy and said Hill tried to intimidate them into withholding controversial amendments that the panel’s leadership felt would compromise bipartisan support for the bill.
“For a staff member to browbeat a member, that’s inappropriate,” one Republican lawmaker told CQ Roll Call.
Yet even if the moves ameliorate members’ concerns, Shields’ bureaucratic, stringent style has left some staffers wary. On May 19, he sent a staff-wide memo instructing, “It is unacceptable to leave the office for the day before 6PM. . . . If you cannot adhere to this, that is a major problem,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by CQ Roll Call.
Also at issue is what was described as a disrespectful way in which the staffers were fired. According to several staff and member sources, Shields called Katz, Maurer, Peterlin and Arangio into his office, asked them to turn in their BlackBerrys and IDs, told them their computers were locked down and said their positions had been eliminated, giving no specific reason for the layoffs. The staffers were told they would have a few hours that day and the next to clean out their desks and were told they would receive a month or two of severance pay, depending on how long they had worked at the committee. Leonard, who was not in the office at the time, heard secondhand that he had been fired.
Moreover, the staffers were not allowed any contact with McCaul.
Capitol Hill staffers generally have little protections relative to the rest of the workforce, and sources indicate the firings were legally above board. But sources familiar with the incident said the matter could have been handled with more tact.