Indefinite Leave at Chemical Safety Board Prompts Complaint
OPM Intervention Sought for Merit Violation of Extended Suspension without Cause
Washington, DC — The managing director of a federal agency wants to return to work and end an indefinite suspension that has already lasted four months, according to a complaint filed today on his behalf with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Open-ended involuntary administrative leave without cause violates federal rules and, the complaint points out, is an abuse of the civil service merit system.
Dr. Daniel Horowitz, a PhD chemist, has been the top career executive at the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) since 2010. He was placed on administrative leave on June 16, 2015 for 45 days pending an investigation into “possible misconduct” described within reports issued months earlier by the Republican staff of a House Committee and the Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General. His leave has since been extended twice. The current CSB Chair Vanessa Sutherland ordered the latest leave extension and has refused to identify a date when he may return to his job.
OPM has broad oversight authority to correct merit system violations, such as noncompliant use of administrative leave. It limits administrative leave to short periods and then only for dire circumstances, such as when the employee poses a threat “to his own safety or the safety of others.” Besides violating federal merit rules, the PEER complaint argues that the CSB actions –
- Improperly politicize the civil service as the leave arose under admitted pressure from Congressional Republicans, with whom Ms. Sutherland has met several times during her tenure;
- Serve no legitimate agency purpose as the investigation is being conducted by contractors outside the CSB offices and his return would in no way impede it; and
- Waste scarce funds in a small agency which has already spent more than $100,000 on investigation contractors with more to come. In addition, the entire CSB executive staff is drawing full salary while marooned on administrative leave.
“This sets an extremely dangerous precedent of punishing a civil servant precisely because he followed the lawful orders of a presidential appointee who was his boss,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, contending that Dr. Horowitz is being punished for the perceived missteps of the former CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso who resigned in March. “If it takes more than four months and $100,000 to discover possible misconduct, you are looking too hard.”
For the past four months, Dr. Horowitz has been under bureaucratic house arrest – banned from entering CSB offices, blocked from agency email access, forbidden to speak with CSB employees or do any official business yet he must be on call during working hours. Earlier this month, after he was first contacted by the firm retained in June to for the misconduct investigation, Dr. Horowitz requested legal assistance from PEER in extricating him from this prolonged professional limbo.
“We are disappointed that one of Chair Sutherland’s first acts was to perpetuate merit system abuse,” added Ruch, noting that she also recently posted a new “Board Affairs Specialist” position with a $99,000 salary rage for only one week, presumably to hire a preselected candidate. “If every federal employee under any sort of investigation was sent home, the halls of government would soon be an echo chamber.”
Despite his current status as a political football, Dr. Horowitz has worked at CSB for 15 years reporting to a series of Democratic and Republican agency heads. He is also a prominent and recognized chemical safety specialist responsible in whole or part for many of the Board’s more successful initiatives, such as its acclaimed safety video program and critical recommendations on refinery safety.