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Senators Weigh In on Capitol Police Hiring

The Capitol Police union alleges department brass is circumventing the agency's mandatory retirement age of 57 to hire back friends. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Capitol Police union alleges department brass is circumventing the agency's mandatory retirement age of 57 to hire back friends. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Handing over some of the duties currently performed by Capitol Police officers to civilian employees may be one way to better utilize the department’s nearly $348 million budget, Senate appropriators have suggestedbut the  efforts to do so have caused tension with the union — including allegations of “double-dipping.” A complaint filed against Capitol Police with the Office of Compliance alleges the department refused to consult or negotiate with the Capitol Police Labor Committee when it brought a retired officer back on the payroll as a civilian employee to serve as senior special events coordinator, a position in the Mission Assurance Bureau that involves coordinating visits of federal and foreign officials to the Capitol and planning for demonstrations and protests on the grounds.  

The job, with an annual salary ranging between $95,961 and $120,917, was advertised as vacant from March 11 to March 17. Officer Nicole O’Donnell performed the tasks associated with the job until March 31, when she retired because she had reached the mandatory retirement age of 57, according to a draft copy of the complaint obtained by CQ Roll Call. On April 1, Capitol Police allegedly hired O’Donnell to perform the same duties as a civilian employee.  

“If their goal is to civilianize the department, the last thing you should be doing is bring back people who just retired at a higher salary,” said Jim Konczos, who heads the Fraternal Order of Police-affiliated union, representing around 960 sworn officers.  

The mandatory retirement age has long been a contentious issue for the union. Konczos acknowledged he does not have direct knowledge of how much more the senior special events employee is making as a civilian, though it’s not for lack of trying.  

Earlier this year, the union filed a request for information on Capitol Police’s pay scales because they believe the trend of hiring back favored retirees as civilians with inflated paychecks is widespread. The department responded, but left out contract employees.

Konczos said the congressional committees who have jurisdiction over the department “need to stop the double dipping” of retired Capitol Police employees. “This practice is to circumvent our mandatory law enforcement retirement age to benefit their friends. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Though much ink has recently been shed on the lowest-paid contract workers of the legislative branch, little is known about the contract workforce supporting Congress in senior roles.

A June 3 report from the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General shed light on the proliferation of revolving door deals for senior executive branch officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After probing the hiring of a National Weather Service official, who returned to work as a consultant the day after he retired, investigators wrote that the contract “may be indicative of a routine and troubling practice at NOAA of  hiring former employees as contractors for purposes of carrying out similar duties to those they performed prior to leaving federal service.”

Senate appropriators directed Capitol Police to review duties currently performed by officers that can be done by civilians, including special events, communications, training firearms instruction and the command center, “so that USCP’s highly trained officers may perform primarily sworn activities.” The department is ordered to report back its review within 120 days of the legislative branch spending bill’s enactment.  

Asked about the inspiration for directive, a spokeswoman for Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the chairwoman and subcommittee members had been working closely with Capitol Police to give officers “greater flexibility and maximize their acquired skills and capabilities in addition to providing them increased training opportunities.”  

Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider responded to questions about this story with an email. “We are constantly and aggressively looking at ways we can make the USCP more efficient, and to maximize our resources,” she stated.  

For fiscal 2016, Capitol Police requested $307.4 million for salaries — an increase of more than $20 million from current funding — citing cost-of-living and benefit cost increases. House and Senate appropriators both recommended $300 million, in separate bills that would still provide a sizable overall boost to Capitol Police’s budget.  

The funding would provide for 1,775 sworn officers and 370 civilian staff, maintaining current staffing levels. For reference, starting salary for police recruits while undergoing training is $55,653. Upon graduation, as a private with training, the salary is increased to $57,604. After 30 months of satisfactory performance, and promotion to private first class, an officer’s salary increases to $64,590.  

The House did not include any language about civilian employees in its funding bill report.  

Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who has taken a conservative approach to Legislative Branch appropriations since he was handed that subcommittee’s gavel this Congress, said he leaned on Capitol Police to make the decisions that are best for them and the security of the facilities.  

“I’m not one who wants to micromanage the Capitol Police whatsoever,” Graves said, when asked about the Senate proposal, after a series of House votes. “However if they see or feel that there are some greater opportunities to provide the same, if not better, safety and security for folks, I think Capitol Police should explore all those options — but not just focus that from a cost perspective. It should all be about the safety and security of all the visitors that come to these facilities and the folks that work here.”  

It’s the not the first time the union has questioned the department’s hiring choices for civilian positions.  

On May 18, a federal judge sentenced Deborah K. Lewis, who was hired in 2011 to head the Capitol Police’s Office of Diversity, to 24 months of probation and a $1,200 fine after she pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges stemming from her previous employment at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Lewis, who was escorted from police headquarters when charges were filed in March 2014, was also ordered to pay nearly $2,400 of restitution.

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