The Architect of the Capitol’s watchdog, whose office won an award for a report that led the president to fire the agency’s leader for misuse of government vehicles for vacations, has been told he will be fired if he doesn’t start working on Capitol Hill by March.
Acting Architect of the Capitol Chere Rexroat notified Christopher P. Failla, the AOC inspector general, that his position does not qualify for an exemption from a November policy memorandum that limits remote work.
Leading lawmakers on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the agency, support the move and say it’s time for Failla to get back to Washington for work.
Failla, who moved to the South during the pandemic and has worked remotely from there full time, said complying with the demand would raise questions about the independence of the inspector general’s office and “if I as an IG can be swayed by fear or favor in the future as well.” Failla currently lives in Florida.
The AOC, which is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the Capitol complex, including the grounds, buildings and works of art throughout the campus, didn’t get an inspector general until 2007. The law that established the office says the architect, now Rexroat, hires and supervises the inspector general. But the law also states the inspector general is an “independent objective office.”
The AOC’s website says that the inspector general “operate[s] independently while having administrative reporting relationships with the Architect of the Capitol.”
Rexroat, in a Nov. 14 letter reviewed by CQ Roll Call, acknowledges that employees chose to relocate out of the local commuting area during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she wrote that those decisions were “personal” and “not directed by AOC management.”
“Accordingly, the agency did not change your official duty station pursuant to an earlier decision to make such changes, if appropriate, after the pandemic had ended,” Rexroat wrote. “Since you are being required to return to work onsite, your official duty station will not be changed.”
The telework policy memo, which took effect Dec. 4, says the agency’s senior rated and statutorily appointed workers “are required to be on campus, in person, to have a first-hand understanding of campus conditions.”
Rexroat asked Failla to coordinate his return with her and noted that the Architect of the Capitol will not pay for relocation expenses.
“Alternatively, if you choose not to return to work onsite as required, you may voluntarily resign your position, or the agency will terminate your employment for failure to comply with the requirement to return to work onsite by March 3, 2024,” Rexroat wrote.
Failla, in an emailed statement, said he not yet made a decision about Rexroat’s call for him to return from his “approved remote location” to Washington.
He said he is considering, at his staff’s urging, commuting from Florida to Capitol Hill at his own expense.
“I would do this to in order to support the tremendous award winning work by the AOC OIG staff who have done proper oversight and produced 100s of reports and investigations as well as 100s of recommendations that improve the economies and efficiencies of the AOC and have identified millions of dollars of funds put to better use ensuring American’s hard earned tax dollars are not wasted,” Failla said.
Failla cited the Inspector General Act of 1978 and wrote that “without independence, an OIG cannot conduct themselves objectively, affecting the impartiality and fairness of their audits and investigations.”
“And if an OIG cannot conduct objective audits and investigations, the organization itself lacks internal checks and balances — the domino effect is in full force and by capitulating to this demand, it would bring into question if I as an IG can be swayed by fear or favor in the future as well,” Failla said.
Failla has uncovered government waste and misconduct at the agency since joining as the AOC’s top watchdog in 2017. In 2022, he issued a blistering report on the former head of the agency, J. Brett Blanton, finding that Blanton misused his official, government-issued vehicles and allowed his family to use them for “free gas” and for vacation trips. That report prompted President Joe Biden to fire Blanton.
While Failla worked remotely, his watchdog office has been efficient and garnered recognition for its work.
His office was awarded honors from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency last month for the Blanton investigation and for the office’s work on the AOC’s badging program to bolster security on the Capitol complex.
Failla joined the AOC from the Defense Department inspector general’s office, where he led 19 engineers who reviewed major acquisition defense programs and military facilities, and oversaw complaints and congressional inquiries. He served 26 years in the Navy and retired as a captain.
Rexroat did not respond to a request for comment.
Leaders on the House Administration Committee agree that Failla should be working in Washington.
“I support the AOC’s policy for senior leaders to report in person, in D.C.,” Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis., said in a statement. “We need to get federal workers back to work.”
Rep. Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., the ranking member on the panel, said it’s important for the inspector general to have a presence on Capitol Hill and that he supports Rexroat.
“I think it is near impossible to effectively work and oversee the Capitol complex and all the responsibilities in his capacity and do it remotely,” Morelle said. “I don’t know how you could do that job and not be here.”