Outgoing Chemical Safety Chair Fires Managing Director
Civil Servant Punished for Doing His Job Amidst Shifting Politics and Leadership
Washington, DC — In a troubling development for the federal merit system, a senior civil servant has been terminated for following the lawful orders of a presidential appointee from the prior administration. After delaying a decision on a proposed removal for two-and-a-half years, the Chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) finally acted to sustain the removal in her final day on the job, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Vanessa Sutherland abruptly resigned as CSB Chair last Friday, June 22, reportedly to take a job with Norfolk Southern Railroad. The night before her departure she signed a decision removing Dr. Daniel Horowitz as CSB Managing Director – a decision that had been on her desk ripe for action since December 2015. Dr. Horowitz had been on administrative leave since June 2015 awaiting some resolution of his fate after the prior Chair, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, resigned in March of that year.
“In terms of his profession, Daniel Horowitz has been a political prisoner these past three years but rather than being released he was executed,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that, all told, Sutherland wasted several hundred thousand dollars of taxpayer funds by her fear of acting until she could escape having to face the consequences. “This is among one of the worst cases of personnel management malpractice I have ever seen.”
Dr. Horowitz’s removal was based upon November 2015 proposal signed by CSB Board Member Kristen Kulinowski, who was newly confirmed, witnessed none of the referenced events, and did not even bother to interview Dr. Horowitz. The proposal cites no violation of any specific rule but instead contains ten “specifications” of alleged instances of “conduct unbecoming a federal employee.” Sutherland dismissed two of the specifications but upheld the other eight without explaining why she did either. In little more than a page, Sutherland –
- Brushed aside a sworn affidavit from Dr. Moure-Eraso that he personally authorized and directed all the actions on which the proposal was based. Moure-Eraso was the presidential appointee who was Dr. Horowitz’s direct supervisor during this period. Disregarding his directions would have been grounds for discipline for insubordination;
- Did not explain what specifically Dr. Horowitz did that constituted conduct unbecoming. Nor did she explain what two charges alleging the “appearance” of retaliation even meant; and
- Referenced negotiations to reach “an equitable settlement” but then concluded that, because there had been no settlement, removal was the only option.
On behalf of Dr. Horowitz, PEER today filed a legal challenge to his removal with the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal civil service court. In this appeal, the CSB will bear the burden of proof in showing that the action was supported by the evidence and the penalty was appropriate.
“If civil servants can be fired for doing their jobs every time the political winds change, what is the point of the merit system?” asked Ruch, noting Horowitz, an organic chemist, heretofore had an impeccable record and had received several awards and distinguished recognition in the field of industrial safety. “How Dr. Horowitz has been treated throughout this ordeal is the epitome of bureaucratic cowardice.”