Friday, February 5, 2016

USED: King's Big Fail

It took Danny Harris's collapse to draw many people's attention. We should have been paying attention sooner.

Harris is the Chief Information Officer for the Department of Education. Prior to taking on that job in 2008, he was with the department's CFO office. He is a government lifer. And he was in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform because the US Department of Education is a big fat cyber-mess.

By late last year, in the wake of the huge security breach at Office of Personnel Management computers, Congress was checking the locks on the doors all around the federal government. And the Department of Education was spectacularly lousy. The Inspector General reported that her office found they could hack their way into USED systems with no particularly great effort. The department's data includes at least 139 million different social security numbers (so, almost half the US population), along with oversight of a trillion dollars.

Congress worked Harris like a chew toy back in November, at which time he did himself no favors by giving his department a 7 out of 10 when everyone else was giving the department F's and D's. So his recent collapse-inducing appearance in front of the House committee is the latest in a series.

The House Oversight Committee is headed by Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz is an interesting story in his own right. The Utah Representative arrived at Brigham Young as a Jewish Democrat and left as a Mormon Republican. He earned early attention as one of the legislators who slept on a cot in his office rather than renting pricey DC digs. He's the guy who barely let the head of Planned Parenthood get a word in edgewise and ginned up the misleading cancer care vs. abortions chart. He's taken on the Secret Service, and he's also the guy who threatened to have US Marshalls hunt down Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley and drag him before Congress. And he's the guy leading the attempted interrogation of that odious pharma-troll Martin Shkreli this week. All in all, it seems safe to say that Chaffetz isn't afraid of a little tussle, though he is noted by many as a Representative who can play well bipartisanly, particularly within his committee.

All of this bode poorly for the Department of Ed in general and Danny Harris in particular when Chaffetz decided that Harris was the problem, both in terms of managerial skills and professional ethics. This last hearing was an odd mish-mosh of continued grilling about cyber-security, the ethical problems of Harris running a side business, and rigged awarding of department contracts to Harris's friend. Outside vendors are an issue for USED-- of the 184 data systems they manage, 120 are actually run by contracted vendors.

Acting Pretend Secretary of Education John King had to put in an appearance and while it has been chronicled in many press accounts, nothing captures just how painful it is to watch King fumble and stonewall. One clip that is making the rounds starts with Harris's attempt to explain that although he was the program manager, he didn't lead the project-- so he was in charge, but not in charge, when his friend landed a contract.

Then he moves on to King. Chaffetz has laid out the contract irregularities, and by this point in proceedings, Harris has admitted that he failed to properly report the income from his side business to either the department or the IRS. Chaffetz will now try to get King to say that Harris's behavior was unethical and illegal (the full video is posted below, if you think you can stand it-- this starts at about the 3:15 mark).

Chaffetz: So Mr. King, how is that not a violation of regulation, policy or the law? He admitted that he had outside income above the two hundred dollar threshold and he did not report it either to the IRS nor on the ethics form. How is that not a violation of law, regulation or policy?

King: As you know the general council's role is to review-- our chief career ethics officer, her job is to review the findings from the inspector general and to determine whether or not there has been a violation of law or regulation or policy. General counsel advised--

Chaffetz: But you're asked to review that. You're the one that's supposed to look at that. You're not just supposed to read and say "Hey, that's what they say" and you still to this day believe that Mister Harris has done nothing wrong?

King: A-As I indicated previously, general counsel may--

Chaffetz: No, I want to know what you believe. All this evidence we've thrown out there, you still believe that there is nothing he's done wrong?

King: My responsibility is to rely on the guidance--

Chaffetz: No, your responsibility is to make a judgment--

King: to review the evidence--

Chaffetz: You're hired for your judgment. You're the acting secretary--

King: And based on the recommendation of the general counsel, based on the review that was conducted Deputy Secretary Miller when these incidents first occurred, Deputy Secretary Shelton, after further review of the inspector general's report, after review of the addendum which indicated that the Department of Justice declined further action, based on all those recommendations and the recommendations of our staff, yes, I believe that the department's actions in this case have been appro--

Chaffetz: I asked you if you believed that he had done anything wrong. To this day, do you believe he's done anything wrong?

King: I believe there were significant lapses of judgment. Counsel--

Chaffetz: To your mind is that doing something wrong?

King: Those significant lapses of judgment-- I counseled him on those and they ended by 2013.

Chaffetz: Is it a violation of policy or regulation or law to have outside income and not disclose.

King: The specific determination of whether--

Chaffetz: No no no no no--

King: evidence--

Chaffetz: Mr. King. With all due respect. You're a smart guy. You're in this position for a reason. I'm asking you, is it appropriate, because everybody at the Department of Education is watching you and what you're doing and there's a reason why you're scoring near the bottom of the heap, bottom ten percent of everybody in government. Every single key metric we look at is going down and it's your leadership that's on the line. I'm asking you is it appropriate, is it a violation of law or regulation or policy to have outside income purposely not disclose it?

King: Based on the recommendation of (our) general counsel I do not believe that there was a violation of law, regulation or policy--

Chaffetz: He admitted that he didn't do it-- he admitted that he didn't do it. You don't think that's--

That's eight times that Chaffetz tries to get an answer pried out of King. On the last attempt, King gets around to trying to defend his department about the charges of sucking at cyber security. Chaffetz will try once more at least to get King to say something like, "Yes, what he did was wrong." But he will try in vain. King will steadfastly assert that the general counsel said this was fine and somebody wrote out this cool talking point that he will hold onto like life itself.

Now, I think it's worth looking at this because I don't just see a guy who is stonewalling to protect one of his career bureaucrats. King here is a guy who clearly thinks that exercising judgment is not part of his job.

That's worth noting. We've seen all along that reformsters envision a world where classroom teachers exercise no personal or professional judgment, but simply follow procedures and structures handed down from faceless authorities. But watching King here, I'm realizing that it's not just a vision of how a classroom should work, but how the whole world should work. As long as your oversight policies don't set off alarms, as long as the program says you're okay, there is no responsibility or even need to look at something and say, based on your own human experience and judgment, "This is wrong."

As long as the bureaucracy is functioning in its bureaucratic way, no actual human thought or judgment, neither moral, ethical, professional or personal-- none of it is either needed or desired. That would seem to be Chaffetz's point-- in a department where nobody wants to talk about right and wrong, it is predictable that all sorts of things would come off the rails.

It's clear that King didn't singlehandedly create this mess (Arne Duncan supposedly only met with Harris about security issues once a month). It's equally clear that King is not the man to clean it up. And it is clearest of all that the Department is a drifting ship loaded with valuable cargo that it has no idea of how to protect.


  1. Great piece.
    Being a NYer, I have no love for John King, but I find it interesting that Duncan is gone and King was left holding this particular bad.
    It makes me wonder if King, already discredited in NYS, was seen as the perfect expendable fall guy for some of the USDOE's recent failings.

  2. No, King was rewarded for his NY failure with a plum job with the feds when New Yorkers ran him out of their state. It was only a lucky conjunction of the stars that Arne left. Obama knew there was no way he could get a nominee through Congress and elected to make King the Acting Pretend Chump.