Trump appointees routinely bullied State Department staffers, IG reports

Numerous employees subjected to ‘disrespectful,’ ‘hostile’ and ‘inappropriate’ treatment

Two top officials at the State Department engaged in "generally unprofessional behavior" toward staffers, the inspector general's report found. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)
Two top officials at the State Department engaged in "generally unprofessional behavior" toward staffers, the inspector general's report found. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 16, 2019 at 7:27am

A long-awaited investigation by the State Department’s inspector general concluded in a report released Thursday that multiple career employees were subjected to “disrespectful,” “hostile” and “inappropriate” treatment at the hands of political appointees.

The review specifically focused on allegations of political retaliation against career employees at the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which leads and coordinates U.S. policy toward the United Nations. For over a year, House and Senate Democrats have pushed for a thorough investigation into whistleblower complaints and news reports that political appointees were vetting career employees at the State Department and retaliating against those they deemed insufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump and his administration’s conservative agenda.

The IG review found that though “numerous” employees raised concerns internally to department management outside of the IO bureau about the mistreatment within the bureau, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kevin Moley failed to take “significant action to respond to such concerns.”

Moley was frequently at the center of concerns raised by employees interviewed by the IG’s office.

[Democrats spar with State official over arms sales maneuver]

The 34-page report details numerous examples of Moley’s and then-bureau senior adviser Mari Stull’s treatment of staffers. The review also describes Moley’s pursuit of unjustified first-class travel accommodations, and conflicts of interests held by Stull from her time at the United Nations. Stull no longer works at the department.

“These failures of leadership have led to serious morale problems in IO and to the departure of a significant number of career staff,” the report states. “OIG encourages the department to take action to address these concerns promptly.”

The IG report made two recommendations to the undersecretary for political affairs, who oversees the IO bureau, to develop a “corrective action plan” to address management problems and to consider “disciplinary action.”

The State Department said it accepted the recommendations.

“Of the two named employees, one employee is no longer with the Department.  With regard to the second employee, the Department will prepare a corrective action plan after review of the final OIG report,” a State Department spokesman, who was not authorized to be quoted, said in an email. “The Under Secretary for Political Affairs is already working directly with the bureau to provide guidance, counsel employees, and improve leadership and management. The Department will provide a corrective action plan as recommended by the OIG within 60 days.”

‘Generally engaged in unprofessional behavior’

The probe found that Moley and Stull, who both started working at the department in April 2018, improperly dismissed or blocked the promotion of two senior career employees, including a principal deputy assistant secretary who had criticized their behavior toward staffers.

At another point, an IO legislative affairs staffer, who as part of her official duties accompanied a Congressional Black Caucus delegation to the United Nations, saw most of her job portfolio taken away when she returned from the trip after Stull accused her of attempting to “thwart” Trump’s agenda, according to the report.

[Interior Department policy let political appointees review FOIA requests]

“Nearly every employee interviewed by OIG raised concerns about the leadership of IO and the treatment of staff. Then-Undersecretary [of State for Political Affairs Tom] Shannon told OIG that IO employees had described to him a negative and ‘vindictive’ environment in IO cultivated by Assistant Secretary Moley and Ms. Stull,” the report states. “The majority of employees OIG interviewed either directly experienced hostile treatment or witnessed such treatment directed at others.”

These employees told the IG’s office that Moley, who led the United States’ U.N. Geneva office for several years during the George W. Bush administration, and Stull, a former food and beverage lobbyist and wine blogger, frequently berated employees, yelled and “generally engaged in unprofessional behavior toward staff.”

According to the report, a significant amount of this behavior was directed at junior employees, which concerned high-level department officials outside of the IO bureau.

“Today, the OIG substantiated many of the concerns State Department employees have raised with the committee since day one of the Trump presidency,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “Left to its own devices, the Trump administration has had no limits or shame in how they’ve targeted career employees because of a perceived political preference or otherwise mistreated them, a problem that has been compounded by the inability or unwillingness of both Secretaries [Mike] Pompeo and [Rex] Tillerson to stop this behavior.”

Democrats on Thursday made clear they want Moley fired.

“Assistant Secretary Kevin Moley, who is somehow still running the bureau, appears to have done nothing to stop this vindictive culture,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York said in a statement. “Ultimately, of course, the buck stops with Secretary Pompeo, who continues to employ Mr. Moley as part of his senior leadership team. Mr. Moley should resign or be fired.”

Bullying and conflicts of interest

The IO bureau has roughly 300 employees, including roughly 70 Foreign Service officers. In the 16 months that Moley has headed the bureau, he has gone through three principal deputy assistant secretaries, including one whom he dismissed from the bureau after she questioned his and Stull’s management practices, according to the report.

A recurring source of friction between Moley and Stull and career employees was the latter group’s adherence to longstanding chain-of-command procedures for the development and clearance of official documents, according to the report. These clearance procedures allow junior desk officers at regional bureaus to provide input on U.N. matters to IO bureau staffers. Under these procedures, the head of the bureau and senior adviser would not initially be copied on the developing documents until they were in the later development stage, depending on the significance of the issue.

“I wouldn’t need to be on the clearance if the [document] reflected this Administration’s position! It definitely does not . . . Got it!” Moley wrote in a June 2018 email to a junior desk officer at a regional bureau who had not copied him on a developing document.

Stull criticized employees for clearing certain documents that pre-dated her time at the department even though they had the authorization to do so, according to the report. Several employees also told the IG’s office that she often would refer to them or other career staffers as “Obama holdovers,” “disloyal” or “traitors.”

Additionally, Moley was upset when employees informed him that official travel he wanted to take in May 2018 did not warrant first-class accommodations under the department’s travel policies, according to the report.  The assistant secretary criticized the employees for “not fighting hard enough” to get him his desired travel accommodations.

Stull is a former employee of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. During her time with the U.N., she attempted to get IO bureau staff to push for the FAO to favorably resolve a personnel claim she had filed with them, according to the report. But after receiving advice from the department’s legal adviser that such an intervention would be inappropriate, the IO bureau took no action on her behalf with FAO.

However, once Stull was appointed to the IO bureau, she almost immediately “retaliated against the two IO career employees whom she believed had been insufficiently supportive of her position in her employment claim with the FAO,” according to the report.

The retaliation took the form of multiple comments in the presence of others by Stull to Moley that one of the individuals was “unprofessional” and attempting to “undermine” her. And she attempted to take away from that staffer the food security portfolio he had long held and been regarded as the department’s leading expert on, according to the IG report.

Stull also directed a lower-level staffer to sit in on and monitor the other individual’s phone calls with international organizations, which was deemed inappropriate and halted by the principal deputy assistant secretary of the bureau, who was later dismissed after she pushed back against Moley and Stull, according to the report.

“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 concludes.

Additionally, the IG report notes Stull pushed to block the promotion of the “leading candidate” for a vacant position as the deputy director for the bureau’s human rights office. Stull took this action after she learned the career foreign affairs officer being considered had previously worked on issues relating to the U.N.’s office dealing with Palestinian refugees and on gay and lesbian rights.

“Assistant Secretary Moley and Ms. Stull appear to have violated department prohibitions on using non-merit factors in personnel assignments,” the report concludes.

Last August, Stull wrote to the IG’s office alleging she had experienced retaliation in response to her efforts to weed out fraud, waste and abuse. However, the IG’s office did not find any independent evidence backing up her claims, and she refused to meet with the inspector general to discuss the allegations made against her, the report notes.

The IG’s office said Moley was at fault for leadership failures, noting he claimed to the IG’s office that no employee had “ever” raised a concern with him about morale or hostile management practices.

“This is inconsistent with the statements of numerous IO employees from different offices who described to OIG such conversations with the assistant secretary [about bullying practices],” the report states. “Similarly, 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.’”

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