DID YOU KNOW?? (Workers Compensation)

Horizontal Divider 7

Prison in North Louisiana on lockdown after fights
The federal prison here was on lockdown Sunday night after fights broke out on New Year’s Eve among inmates at the facility in rural north Louisiana.

Prison spokesman Steven Niles said the fighting broke out shortly before noon Saturday at the U.S. Penitentiary, the maximum-security segment of the federal prison complex there.

Niles said five prisoners were taken to local hospitals for treatment.

By Sunday, he said, four had been returned to the prison. Injuries to the other inmate were not believed to be life-threatening. While he would not give details on the injuries, Niles said they were “consistent with fighting.”

What caused the fight is still under investigation. Niles said a review of video inside the prison showed at least 15 inmates were involved, possibly more.

“We’re interviewing inmates to try to find out what happened,” he said.

Niles said the fight broke out around 11:35 a.m. and prison staff had the situation under control within 15 minutes. No prison employees were injured, he said. “The situation was taken care of very quickly. There was never a threat to the public,” Niles said.

When the facility is on lockdown, inmates are restricted to their living quarters, and routine institution activities — including visitation — are temporarily suspended.

The prison is in Grant Parish, about 15 miles north of Alexandria.

It holds about 1,300 inmates and a staff of about 660 in several facilities.

Scott Williams memorialized


On a Friday night, the president of the Local 3048 Federal Correctional Officers union, Barry Fredieu, received a telephone call that he had been waiting on for months. 

The voice on the other end was Ryan Sherman, communications director of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), which represents peace officers statewide.

The news was of the passage of the Scott Williams Memorial Highway bill in the California Legislature. The two union members co-sponsored the bill that designates Highway 1 from the Santa Lucia Road turn-off to the main gate of the Vandenberg Air Force Base as Federal Correctional Officer Scott Williams Memorial Highway.

The bill was authored by Sen. Tony Strickland and California State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian. 

It has been 14 years since Scott Williams was slain at the hand of an inmate at the Lompoc federal prison. According to Fredieu, the man who stabbed Williams never went to trial but was civilly committed to life in prison in another state. 

“All these years the family really has not had any closure or justice,” said Fredieu.

CCPOA chapter President Pat Campbell said he traveled to Sacramento to testify a week before the decision just to “make sure there were no glitches.” According to Campbell, there is sometimes a bit of opposition due to political positions.

 Campbell said as it turned out he didn’t have to say much, but preferred to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” 

Fredieu, after hearing that his co-worker would in fact be memorialized, resigned as president of Local 3078, making the legislation his final task. Fredieu plans to retire in November, ending a 25-year career as a correctional officer.

“I wanted to see this bill go through, I couldn’t ask for anything better as a retirement gift,” he said. 

Fredieu worked with Williams at the Lompoc prison and said he was a decorated Marine who fought in the Gulf War. “He was well respected, well liked.”

Campbell who is a correctional officer in San Luis Obispo, said he did not know Williams personally but felt close to this project because “our lives are very similar.” 

Williams and Campbell entered the military at the same time, held the same job title and even have wives with the same name, he said. 

To Campbell the memorial highway designation is a “thank you” for that person’s contribution. 

Fredieu called the designation “a lasting tribute to Scott and his family.”

Williams’ widow, Kristy, has been in the loop from the very beginning and said Fredieu asked her if she liked the idea before he made any plans. She discussed it with her daughters and together they decided it would be a nice way to honor her husband.

Saying her husband was not the type who liked a lot of attention, she said, “Our entire family feels very proud. It takes a special type of person to do a job like that and it’s and honor to all law enforcement.” 

Williams said that after more than 14 years of fighting to get justice for her husband — with the courts finding the 

attacker mentally unable to stand trial — the honor offers a bit of closure for her family.

Associate Warden Felicia Ponce said, “It was a great loss for our facility, we are very delighted that the state of California has decided to honor him in this way.”

According to Fredieu, the next step is for the California Department of Transportation to use private donations to produce two signs that will cost about $4,000, total. 

According to Campbell, there will be a dedication ceremony with state officials present in the near future.

Horizontal Divider 7

Federal prison has fessed up to female worker being raped

By Steve Nunez

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - After five days of trying to keep a sexual assault on the hush, the Federal Prison in Tucson has now fessed up. Officials confirmed to 9 On Your Side the FBI is investigating a female worker who reported she was raped by a prisoner last Friday.

Brian Lowry, National President of the Council of Prison's Local Union of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) that represents prison officers and workers, said had he not come from Arkansas to Tucson the prison may have swept the sexual assault under the rug.

"I absolutely am angry," said Lowry.

And, he's not the only one who is outraged.

Lowry continued, "The staff (prison) are angry at the incident."

It turns out, in digging for the facts, a prisoner violently attacked a female worker with a weapon and then raped her. It happened in a hallway inside the maximum security prison.

The 20-year agency veteran was all alone.

But, come to find out, this incident highlights a wider problem with the entire prison system.

"This is not uncommon in the Bureau of Prisons that a staff member in the capacity of what the victim does would be one-on-one sometimes with inmates to get there job done," said Lowry.

The union president said all 122 federal prisons throughout the country are no longer properly staffed.

"And the staff are in danger in some sense because of the reduced numbers there's no way to get around it," said Lowry.

It's a secret, Lowry said, the prison does not want you to know about.

It took 9 On Your Side five days to pry information from the prison.

In response to our emailed questions, the prison now revealed 283 of its 522 workers are correctional officers.

S.K. Beauchamp, the prison's Public Information Officer, released this statement: "All Bureau of Prisons' staff, regardless of their specialized work assignment, receives the same training as correctional officers. Bureau of Prisons' staff are Correctional Workers first, committed to the highest level of performance."

But what the prison does not say is how many its 283 officers are assigned to guard the maximum security facility where the female worker was raped. The 1,616 inmates housed in this facility are considered the most dangerous murderers and violent sexual predators.

The Federal Prison complex has two other facilities that houses 863 criminals considered less violent.

Lowry believes the maximum security is short-staffed 150 correctional officers.

9 On Your Side Reporter Steve Nuñez asked: "What do you say to those who say you're using this to push your agenda as a union to hire more officers which then become union members?"

"I assure you that the incidents that occurred in Tucson on Friday and Saturday are not part of my agenda," answered Lowry.

Meanwhile, Lowry confirmed the prison remains under lock-down. He said that's an indication prisoners are still being shaked-down for information.

Lowry tells 9 On Your Side the rape victim is at home recovering but is still under a doctors care. He said at this time it's unlikely she'll ever return to work again.

The FBI has yet to question the victim.

Lowry also confirmed to 9 On Your Side the prisoner who reportedly raped the female worker has a history of sexual violence against other women.

The union president said while this prisoner has been moved to another facility it does not solve the fact all prison's are short-staffed. He fears the same thing is bound to happen elsewhere.

Horizontal Divider 7

Painful Memories Renewed for Former Prison Worker

PIMA COUNTY - A weekend attack at Tucson's U.S. Penitentiary hit home for a Tucson woman.

Saturday, officials said a female employee was sexually assaulted. The victim had worked at the prison for 20-years. The Federal Bureau of Prisons said, she was alone when she was attacked by a male inmate with a weapon.

When Wendy Lemons first heard the news of the attack on Saturday it immediately brought back some painful memories from her own attack.

Lemons was a senior officer at the prison during her attack. She said the inmate had been stalking her for months before eventually taking it to the next level. Lemons said, "He pushed me against some book shelves. He was totally naked and oiled down. I screamed real loud and I hit my body alarm because we have no weapons. The officers came a few minutes later to help me."

Physically she was banged up a little bit but she said the worst of it came later through emotional and mental problems.

"Just pulling up into the driveway was too much for me at work and stuff. Being in that quiet unit from midnight to eight I kept thinking someone was going to come and get me or something so it was pretty tough."

So tough she had to retire. But even then she said her issues didn't stop. Lemons said, "It was more of a mental thing. I still have nightmares to this day. I don't think it's ever going to go away."

And that's her biggest fear for the victim in this latest attack.

She said, "I feel so bad for that lady and what she's going through. I don't even know all the details but i really feel bad for her."

So what can be done to stop the attacks on female workers?

Lemons said women don't need to be treated any differently but they could use some more help, just like the men. She said, "They need to up their staffing levels. That's what the union is upset about. Staffing is very low. You can't supervise all those inmates with just one person."

We put in a call to the prison system both on a local level and a national level to talk about the recent incident and any possible changes. They refused to comment.

Horizontal Divider 7

Prisoner raped female worker; what officials don't want you to know

By Steve Nunez

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - A prisoner raped a female worker at the federal prison in Tucson. The sexual assault happened inside the maximum security facility last Friday morning.

Federal prison officials would not comment on the incident. In fact, over the weekend they initially denied the sexual assault took place.

9 On Your Side tried to get answers on Monday. A prison official asked us to leave because camera's are not allowed on its premises.

However, Susan Mastin, local President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), confirmed to 9 On Your Side the inmate attacked the 20-year veteran with a weapon. She would not give specific details because the investigation is ongoing.

Mastin said the sexual assault highlights what's really happening on the other side of our federal prison walls.

She's calling on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to allow its workers to carry pepper spray.

When KGUN9 News met with Mastin, all she had with her was a two-way radio and a set of keys clipped to her belt. She said it's the same equipment most prison officers carry with her while working next to dangerous murderers and sex offenders.

"I think if this individual had pepper spray they would have had a few seconds, a chance, at least, of utilizing it and getting into a safer area," said Mastin.

9 On Your Side Reporter asked Mastin why the female victim was allowed to work by herself.

"Well we find ourself in the areas by ourselves on a regular basis," replied Mastin.

Mastin claims there's also a huge shortage of officers. She's also calling on Congressional leaders to increase its prison budget to hire more officers.

Nuñez asked: "The budget defict that this nation is currently faced with, do you believe you'll ever get the funding to increase staffing?"

"They (congressional leaders) understand what the problem is and I'm very hopeful that they will listen to us and help keep us safe and keep the community safe," said Mastin.
But until more funding arrives, Mastin said officers will continue to be vulnerable to attacks by inmates.

The prison also denied prisoners attacked and assaulted four officers over the weekend. After denying the incident, the prison released a statement confirming the brawl.

Three staff members suffered minor injuries and were treated by prison medical staff. One staff member was treated at a local hospital for non-life threatening injuries.

The prison officer's union tells 9 On Your Side it's raised similar concerns regarding officer safety as recently as last year.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's office confirmed to 9 On Your Side the Congresswoman met with the union and contacted the Federal Bureau of Prisons which then supplied its prison officers with stab-proof vests.

Horizontal Divider 7

OPM backs management groups seeking to participate in labor forums
The government's human resources chief is asking federal agencies to give management associations a seat at labor forum discussions from which they've been excluded.

In a July 20 memo, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry reminded agency heads to consult with organizations representing federal supervisors on issues affecting agency operations, personnel management and employee effectiveness. Managers should be included in decision-making processes and notified of any changes in a timely manner even if they are not part of an association, he wrote.

Members of the Government Management Coalition in April sent a letter to Berry and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients, who co-chairs the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, asking to be included in forums designed to improve communication between agency leadership, employees and managers. Council members in May 2010 expressed support for management associations' participation, but representatives say little progress has been made.

"Not a single association has been allowed to participate in the forums, and in some cases, our associations have been actively excluded," they wrote. "More troubling, the associations are not part of the dialogue about issues and decisions discussed in pre-decisional involvement or the forums, despite the fact our members are directly responsible for carrying out the decisions of the forums."

Management associations already have consultation rights in some agencies. Though these organizations are actively involved in council meetings, there is nothing mandating that they be included in agency-level forums, and the council does not have to approve their participation. According to one organization's representative, Berry's memo simply reminds agencies that may not be aware of those rights that management associations can ask to participate in forum discussions.

"Our folks have the advantage to say here's why this might work," said Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association. "First- and second-line supervisors are being left out of the conversation when they have to implement what forums decide."

Horizontal Divider 7

EPA employee union launches bid to battle funding cuts

By Ben Geman

The union that represents Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees is launching a new campaign to battle funding cuts and staffing reductions facing the agency.

The campaign rolled out this month by the American Federation of Government Employees National Council #238 of EPA Locals comes as the EPA faces immediate cuts under House GOP spending legislation, and potentially years of reductions under the deficit-cutting deal the White House struck with Republicans.

The "Save the Environment — Save the EPA" campaign will "bring attention to the dangerous impacts the draconian budget cuts proposed by Congress would have on the ability of the EPA to protect our nation’s human health and the environment," according to the
initiative’s website.

The House is debating fiscal 2012 spending plans that provide $7.1 billion for the EPA, well below the agency’s current-year funding of $8.7 billion — and $1.8 billion less than the White House is seeking for fiscal 2012.

Rep. Jim Moran (Va.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee panel that crafts the EPA’s budget, this week
predicted that the deal to trim the deficit by over $2 trillion over 10 years will mean ongoing pain for environmental and conservation programs.

Horizontal Divider 7

Groups urge leaders to reject proposals aimed at federal workforce

By Kellie Lunney

With less than a month to go before the government begins to default on its obligations, federal employee groups continue to urge congressional leaders and the White House to reject proposals targeting their pay and benefits as part of a deficit reduction deal.

A coalition of 25 groups sent letters to President Obama and House and Senate leaders July 1, criticizing a plan negotiators are considering that would require federal workers to contribute more of their salaries to their pension plans, calling the proposed increase a "payroll tax." Federal employee advocates argue such an increase in worker contributions could exceed 5 percent of employees' income.

"Federal civil servants are already subject to a two-year pay freeze, despite the fact the nation's debt crisis did not arise out of exorbitant federal civil service pay or benefits," the letters stated.

The Federal-Postal Coalition is made up of organizations including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Association of Letter Carriers, and the Senior Executives Association. The group sent a similar letter in June to Vice President Biden, who is leading the debt ceiling negotiations.

Bruce Moyer, chairman of the Federal-Postal Coalition, said in an email that the group has not received a response to its July 1 letter.

The future of government employees' contributions to the Federal Employees Retirement System is uncertain. In addition to discussions to increase workers' share as part of debt ceiling negotiations, the House-passed version of the fiscal 2012 budget resolution included a recommendation that would require federal employees to pay for half the defined benefit they receive with their pensions at retirement. Most employees currently contribute 0.8 percent of their salaries and agencies pay 11.7 percent, with agencies' contribution set to increase to 11.9 percent in October.

In June, the U.S. Postal Service halted employer contributions to the FERS-defined benefit plan, which the agency estimates will free up $800 million in cash this fiscal year.

The Treasury Department in May suspended investments into federal employees' pensions, when the government officially hit its debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion. Once the debt issue is resolved, the Treasury by law will be required to restore federal pensions and the Thrift Savings Plan's stable government securities (G) fund to their full balance, along with any interest lost during the suspension. The government expects to default on its obligations on Aug. 2, unless negotiators can come to an agreement.

Current and former lawmakers have jumped in on the pension debate. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., last month urged Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to protect federal pensions during budget negotiations. She also criticized the idea that government workers should contribute more to their retirement plans in an effort to cut spending. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have introduced legislation that would end the FERS defined benefit plan for new federal employees, including new members of Congress, starting in 2013.

Failure to raise the government's debt ceiling could lead to cuts in pay and benefits for federal civilian employees, military members and veterans, according to an analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center. In a report published in June, the center found that unless the debt ceiling is raised, federal spending would be cut by 44 percent in August. Under several scenarios, Geithner could prioritize spending to include reductions in pay for government workers, the group said.

A February report from the Congressional Research Service, however, found that exceeding the debt ceiling carries less risk for federal workers than a government shutdown. "Failing to raise the debt ceiling would not bring the government to a screeching halt the way that not passing appropriations bills would," CRS wrote, quoting a 1995 report from the Congressional Budget Office. "Employees would not be sent home and checks would continue to be issued."

Horizontal Divider 7

Federal retiree benefits could face cuts in deficit talks

Federal annuities could be at risk, along with government pay and other benefits, as lawmakers comb the budget in search of potential savings.

Steve Strobridge, director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, said an overhaul of the military retirement system is "allegedly . . . one possible item on the list" of proposals being considered in the deficit reduction talks.

The changes, which are based on a 2009 report on military compensation, would shift service members to a civilian system under which full annuities wouldn't be paid until beneficiaries reach age 57 to 60. Defense's contributions would vary annually based on changing retention and skill requirements under the new system, and service members who stay in for 10 years would not lose contributions to their retirement funds.

Under the current system, military personnel are eligible for pension payments after 20 years of service. According to Strobridge,current service members and retirees would be exempt from the changes, which would affect only new personnel. The 20-year requirement keeps retention and readiness high, he said, noting that proposals to cut overall military retirement costs while implementing an expensive vesting strategy increase the burden on career service members.

"The whole concept of the military retirement system is to induce people to put up with extreme sacrifices for 20 to 30 years," Strobridge said. "You can't civilianize compensation without civilianizing service conditions, and we're certainly not going to do that."

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the current military retirement system. During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last month, Gates told lawmakers that up to 80 percent of service members do not stay long enough to retire and receive no benefits, while the 20-year model incentivizes personnel to shorten their careers when the military needs them to stay.

An attempt by Congress to reform the military retirement system in 1986 was less severe than the current proposal, but did affect service member retention, Strobridge said. "Having proven that a much lesser cut has hurt retention and readiness, I'm surprised they are considering a much larger cut," he said.

Also up for debate is the government's method for calculating cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients, which in turn could reduce COLAs paid to federal civilian and military retirees. COLAs are determined based on a formula that takes into account increases in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, but some experts argue that a "chained CPI," which takes into account changes in purchasing habits as prices change, provides a clearer understanding of inflation.

According to Daniel Adcock, legislative director at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, the proposal disproportionately affects older Americans who tend to have higher health care costs, particularly in the last few years when retirees haven't received cost-of-living adjustments. The change has been estimated to lower Social Security benefits by 3 percent over 10 years and likely would have a similar impact on federal civilian and military retiree COLAs, he said.

"One of the things you could possibly see is you don't change the Social Security COLA, but you do change the federal civilian and military COLA because they are much smaller programs and you'll take less heat from 2.3 million federal workers than 40 million Social Security beneficiaries," Adcock said.

Horizontal Divider 7

Two inmates injured in disturbance involving 40 at federal prison in Fairfield
FAIRFIELD TWP. — Two inmates were injured Wednesday evening when a fight broke out among 40 inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fairton, prison officials confirmed.

The fight occurred around 7:30 p.m. in the prison recreation yard.

The two injured inmates were transported to local hospitals suffering injuries sustained from fighting, officials said.

None of the injuries were deemed life-threatening.

Institution staff responded immediately and secured the institution, officials said, accounted for all inmates, and initiated an investigation.

Officials stated there was never any threat to the surrounding area or local community.

No explanation for what caused the fight has been released.

Horizontal Divider 7


Senator says promises made must be promises kept

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), this week sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, urging him to protect federal employee pensions during the budget process. Right now, the Department of the Treasury is borrowing billions from the federal employee pension funds to avoid America defaulting on its debts after reaching the debt limit. These same pensions, that are currently helping to avert a fiscal disaster, have been targeted for cuts in recent debt-reduction negotiations.

"I value the service of federal employees, and I know how important these benefits are to millions of middle-class families," Senator Mikulski said. "Promises made must be promises kept. We must not put federal employee pensions on the chopping block in budget reduction negotiations."The full text of the letter follows:

Timothy F. Geithner


Department of the Treasury

1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20220

Dear Secretary Geithner:

I write out of concern for our hardworking federal employees and the pension funds that they have paid into over their working lives. Federal employee pension funds are being used to prevent a fiscal disaster, and federal worker’s pensions are being targeted for cuts to balance the budget.

Right now, the Department of Treasury is borrowing billions from these workers as part of a series of emergency measures to prevent the catastrophic consequences of hitting the debt ceiling. This is not the first time that federal employee pension funds have been used to prevent the government from defaulting on its debts. It is the fifth time in fifteen years. Each time, federal employees are told "Don’t worry—your retirement savings aren’t at risk," but Congress has tested the faith of our federal workers repeatedly.

These men and women are dedicated and duty driven. They are on the frontlines protecting America every day securing our borders, inspecting our food, and performing critical health research. They deserve a decent wage, safe working conditions, and our thanks and respect.

Unfortunately, rather than being recognized for their contributions, federal employees have become scapegoats for the financial problems our nation faces. They have already been subject to a two-year pay freeze. But that wasn’t enough. Now, some Members of Congress and Administration officials are asking federal workers to contribute significantly more to their retirement plans—a proposal that would essentially lead to a 5 percent pay cut.

I value the service of federal employees, and I know how important these benefits are to millions of middle class families. Promises made must be promises kept. We must not put federal employee pensions on the chopping block in budget reduction negotiations.


Barbara Mikulski

United States Senator

Horizontal Divider 7

Union Official Opposes Efforts To Limit Official Time

On-the-job representation benefits employees, managers, taxpayers, leader says

WASHINGTON, June 1, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The American Federation of Government Employees strongly opposes any proposals to erode the rights of federal employee representatives to use official time to represent collective bargaining unit employees, AFGE National President John Gage told a House panel today.

For nearly 50 years, federal employees who serve as volunteer employee representatives have used official time to engage in representational activities while on duty status. Such activities include creating fair promotion procedures, establishing flexible work hours, setting procedures that protect employees from on-the-job injuries, enforcing protections from unlawful discrimination, developing telework practices and providing workers with a voice in determining their working conditions.

Federal employee unions represent all employees within their collective bargaining units, even those who choose not to pay union dues, Gage noted.

"Through official time, employee representatives are able to work together with federal managers to use their time, talent and resources to make our government even better. Gains in quality, productivity and efficiency – year after year, in department after department – simply would not have been possible without the reasonable and sound use of official time," Gage said in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy.

Federal employee representatives do not use official time to conduct union-specific business, such as soliciting members, holding internal union meetings, electing union officers or engaging in partisan political activities.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 limits the amount of official time that can be used for representational responsibilities to what which the labor organization and employing agency agree is reasonable, necessary and in the public interest, Gage said.

"The amount of time must be negotiated by the two parties. It is not a blank check for the union," he said.

From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009, total official time hours governmentwide increased 3.37 percent. But the total number of hours expended per bargaining unit employee fell from 2.60 to 2.58.

Horizontal Divider 7

Supreme Court orders California to release tens of thousands of prison inmates

The 5-4 decision represents one of the largest prison release orders in U.S. history. The court majority says overcrowding has caused 'suffering and death.' In a sharp dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warns 'terrible things are sure to happen.'

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered California on Monday to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that "needless suffering and death" had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.

It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation's history, and it sharply split the high court.

Justices upheld an order from a three-judge panel in California that called for releasing 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Since then, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. As a result, the total prison population is now about 32,000 more than the capacity limit set by the panel.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said California's prisons had "fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements" because of overcrowding. As many as 200 prisoners may live in gymnasium, he said, and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet.

Kennedy insisted that the state had no choice but to release more prisoners. The justices, however, agreed that California officials should be given more time to make the needed reductions.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling "staggering" and "absurd."

He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of "46,000 happy-go-lucky felons." He added that "terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order." Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.

In a separate dissent, Justice
Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the ruling conflicted with a federal law intended to limit the power of federal judges to order a release of prisoners.

State officials and lawyers for inmates differ over just how many prisoners will have to be released. In recent figures, the state said it had about 142,000 inmates behind bars, and the judges calculated the prison population would need to be reduced to about 110,000 to comply with constitutional standards.

Kennedy said the judges in California overseeing the prison-release order should "accord the state considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans" that are "consistent with the public safety."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the court had "done the right thing" by addressing the "egregious and extreme overcrowding in California's prisons."

David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project, said "reducing the number of people in prison not only would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities."

Meanwhile, the court took no action on another California case in which a conservative group is challenging the state's policy of granting in-state tuition at its colleges and universities to students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from its high schools.

The justices said they would consider the appeal in a later private conference.

Horizontal Divider 7

20 Percent Hike In Your Health Premiums?

by Mike Causey
Federal workers, who now pay about 30 percent of their total health plan premium, could wind up shouldering more than half the burden in a few years under deficit-cutting plans being considered by Congress and the Obama administration.

Since the government often leads the health insurance parade, any change in premium-sharing could have an impact on private sector firms and cash-strapped state and local governments.

Currently the government and employees share the cost of premiums. Under a formula set by law, the government pays about 70 cents of each premium dollar. Nonpostal federal workers and retirees pay the remaining 30 percent of the total premium.


The popular Blue Cross-Blue Shield standard family plan has a biweekly total premium of $ $453.48. But of that amount, the government pays $340.11 and the employee pays $113.37. To check out the premium split in your health plan, click here.

That 70/30 split, which also applies to FEHBP premiums of members of the House and Senate, varies slightly among the dozens of plans available to active and retired civil servants and their survivors. Overall the program covers nearly 9 million people, from CIA agents to NASA astronauts and other civil servants.

Premiums in most of the health plans generally go up each year. Sometimes by a lot. Employees and retirees can switch plans during the regular Novemeber-December open season, or any other time when they have a change in status (including marriage, birth, divorce or death of a spouse.) But each time premiums go up, the 70/30 split is adjusted so that the government continues to pay the lion's share.

The presidential commission on deficit reduction chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House aide Erskine Bowles (National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) produced a laundry list of cuts that would be presented to Congress. One of those proposals was for a 3-year federal pay freeze which President Obama modified to a 2-year freeze. The commission also recommended that feds pay a larger share of their premiums. It and other proposals are being considered by groups in Congress, from the Senate Gang of 6 (now maybe 5,) to the so-called Blair House task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden which is also looking at changes in FERS, the largest federal retirement program covering about four-fifths of the workforce.

Dan Adcock, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said the plan to gradually boost the employee-retiree share of premiums "is one that keeps me up at night." The proposal would cap the government share based on a complex formula using the GDP (gross domestic product). The bottom line, Adcock said, is that if it was enacted this year, workers and retirees who now pay 30 percent of their premium could wind up paying 34 percent in 2012 and as much as 54 percent within 8 years.

That would be especially tough since federal workers are under a pay freeze for 2011 and 2012, and federal retirees have not had a cost of living adjustment in the last two years.

He talked about various proposals aimed at feds and retirees on last week's Your Turn with Mike Causey radio show. To listen, click here.

Horizontal Divider 7

Our View: Illinois should try to get better sale price for Thomson prison

So it looks as though Illinois may finally be able to unload the prison in the tiny town of Thomson, built 11 years ago but never fully used.

Gov. Pat Quinn has been trying to reach a deal with the U.S. government for the past 18 months or so to take possession of the facility and open it as a maximum-security federal prison. Doing so could create an estimated 1,200 direct and indirect jobs - other projections have ranged as high as a wildly optimistic 3,800 - while producing further benefits from construction to renovate the facility, increased tax revenue from new employees and even additional sales taxes from businesses developing nearby.

Of course, things got a little sidetracked during the debate over whether to move detainees now being held at the Navy's Guantanamo Bay facility up to northwest Illinois. (The final ruling from state and federal pols alike: No Gitmo North here.) Then matters became bogged down over cost and the high hurdles to clear in order for one government to sell a piece of property to another government. Nothing is ever easy.

Eventually the appraisal on the building came back at $220 million, to our understanding the lowest amount Thomson Correctional can be sold for under Illinois law. The amount that Congress was willing to set aside for buying a new prison has fluctuated between $90 million and $237 million. Now the federal Bureau of Prisons reportedly has offered $165 million. Obviously that's not $220 million.

Nonetheless, supporters of taking the first offer insist we're still getting a deal. After all, it cost $140 million to build the joint back in 2000 and we'd be getting $165 million today. That ignores the fact that $140 million in the year 2000 amounts to upwards of $180 million in today's cash. Plus we spent the last 11 years paying for upkeep on the place while it was sitting vacant or nearly so.

If Illinois has no use for this property, we'd like it to be sold. Illinois, Inc. lacks the resources to open a new state prison and the feds are hungry for another place to securely place prisoners. On top of that, state government could use the cash, to be blunt. We can't disagree with the sentiment expressed by state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-Rock Island, earlier this week: If we pick up a little bit of unanticipated money here, "maybe we won't have to cut some kid's program ..."

That shouldn't necessarily lead to Illinois settling for a less-than-fair price for the facility. Uncle Sam and the Land of Lincoln alike have virtually unprecedented budget challenges, but that doesn't mean the latter shouldn't try to get the former to move closer toward the appraisal.

Horizontal Divider 7

2 Stabbed As 150 Inmates Fight At Calif. Prison

Two inmates were stabbed multiple times and others were injured during a riot Friday in an outdoor recreation yard at a maximum-security prison near Sacramento, prison officials said.

Guards fired a warning shot and used pepper spray to break up the fight among about 150 inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento in Folsom, which is about 20 miles east of the state capital. It houses about 3,000 inmates.

The condition of the two inmates who were stabbed was not immediately known, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Several other inmates were taken to outside hospitals, while others were treated at the prison for minor injuries, she said. The number of injured inmates and their medical conditions was not immediately known, she said.

No guards or other staff members were hurt during the skirmish, which began about 10:30 a.m.

The fight involved inmates from several different racial groups, but it is not clear why it started, Thornton said.

"That, is, of course going to be investigated," she said.

Thornton said she did not know how quickly the fight was contained. The prison halted most inmate movements while it was investigated.

The brawl was on the B-Facility main exercise yard at the prison, which opened in 1986. It is next door to the much older Folsom State Prison. About 1,700 employees work at the California State Prison, Sacramento.

Horizontal Divider 7

AFSCME Report- Making a Killing

Horizontal Divider 7

Prison Price Set, But Payday for Illinois Not Soon Enough

By Diane S.W. Lee

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama’s administration might have struck a deal on a price for the empty Thomson prison, but Illinois shouldn't expect a check anytime soon.

The agreed upon price of $165 million for the Thomson Correctional Center in the northern corner of the state is less than its appraised value of $220 million, state lawmakers confirmed Wednesday.

However, Rich Carter, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-16th District, said the Illinois congressman has not heard anything about a sale.

"The federal government doesn't have any money," Carter said. "There may be an agreement, but there cannot be a sale without any money to buy the prison."

State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said Illinois needs the money sooner, rather than later.

"Maybe we won’t have to cut some kid’s program, because right now we are in the process of cutting $2.4 billion out of our budget," Jacobs said. "… And maybe this will save a few programs that we won’t have to cut out."

State Rep. Patrick Verschoore, D-Milan, said he was disappointed in the price, but "there is no sense in having something in that good of shape sitting there empty."

In 2001, former Gov. George Ryan built Thomson to ease state prison overcrowding. But the prison has sat empty for nearly a decade, because of state budget cuts and politics.

State Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, said the price is actually more than the cost to build the prison.

"Let’s get it open. Let’s put people to work," Sacia said. "Let’s bring the financial economic impact to our community."

State Rep. Richard Morthland, R-Cordova, said the prison will provide thousands of new jobs to his district, which runs from just north of Thomson and Savanna to the middle of the Quad Cities.

Morthland said the governor reached the agreement almost two weeks ago, but the state will need approval from Congress to sell the prison to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Lawmakers were told to keep it under wraps until funding and an opening date were set.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to reprogram federal funding to turn Thomson into a federal maximum security prison.

"He hopes this can be done as soon as possible so that the purchase can move forward and bring with it the jobs and economic development so important to the region’s future," Durbin's spokeswoman Christina Mulka said in an email.

Thomson would not house terror suspects from the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, Mulka said. Prospects of bringing terrorists to the Land of Lincoln weren't received warmly by people living near the prison.

Grant Klinzman, the governor's press secretary, said Quinn is moving forward with the sale.

"We are continuing to work with the federal government regarding the sale of Thomson Correctional Center. We hope to complete the sale as soon as possible," Klinzman said in an email.

Horizontal Divider 7

Prison Company Worker Liability Gets U.S. Supreme Court Review

By Greg Stohr

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether employees of private prison operators can be sued for violating the constitutional rights of inmates.

The justices today said they will hear arguments from five Geo Group Inc. (GEO) employees seeking to stop a lawsuit by a California inmate who says he was mistreated by prison workers after breaking both elbows in an accident.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that inmates can’t press claims for damages against private prison companies that allegedly violate the Constitution. That case didn’t address claims against guards and other employees of those companies.

More than 34,000 federal inmates are being held in privately run facilities, according to the employees’ appeal. The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses inmates in 14 privately run facilities in eight states.

Richard Lee Pollard was serving time for drug and weapons charges in a Geo-run federal facility in Taft, California, in 2001 when he tripped over a cart and broke both elbows.

Among other allegations, he says that during his trip to an orthopedist, he was required to wear a so-called black box, a device that forces the inmate’s hands down and his arms together. In papers filed at the Supreme Court, Pollard’s lawyers say he had to "hold his broken elbows in an awkward and tremendously painful position" for 6 1/2 hours.

Pollard says that in the coming days he was denied a needed splint, forced to perform painful manual labor and refused assistance with hygiene and meals.

A San Francisco-based federal appeals court said Pollard’s suit could go forward against the employees, though not against Geo itself. Other appellate courts around the country have barred suits against employees as well.

The Geo employees told the high court that prisoner lawsuits over alleged constitutional violations are "already inundating the federal courts." The appeals court’s "dramatic expansion of liability, combined with the increasing prevalence of private prison contractors, will only ensure that such litigation increases," the employees argued.

A ruling favoring the Geo employees wouldn’t preclude inmates from pressing suits under state law.

Geo, formerly known as Wackenhut, is based in Boca Raton, Florida.

The case is Minneci v. Pollard, 10-1104.

Horizontal Divider 7

Six Percent Pay Cut is Halfway Home

Forget the pay freeze. Brace yourself for a pay cut too!

Most federal workers would see their take-home pay drop 5 to 6 percent under legislation the Senate is scheduled to take up next week.

The proposal requiring employees to pay a larger share of their retirement costs is part of the budget that has already passed the House as part of the fiscal year 2012 budget resolution. It also calls for a reduction, via attrition, of 155,000 employees. That, according to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is the number of federal workers hired since the Obama administration took office.

Critics say that figure doesn't take into account thousands of feds who quit or retired over the last two years.

Under the plan, people who are covered by the old Civil Service Retirement System (about 20 percent of the total workforce) would see their retirement contributions (the amount deducted from their biweekly paychecks) go from 7 percent to 12.5 percent.

The majority of employees, who are under the Federal Employees Retirement System, would see their retirement contributions now 0.8 percent go to 5.75 percent.

According to government data, Uncle Sam now contributes 18 percent to the annuity of CSRS employees and 11.5 percent to finance the FERS benefit.

In effect the House action would split the cost 50/50 between the government and individual employees.

Unions and groups representing federal and postal workers at all levels are taking the threat seriously. Federal Managers Association president Patricia Niehaus told the Senate Budget Committee that the proposal to make feds pay more for their pensions "is nothing less than a poorly disguised pay cut..." Niehaus said that trimming the federal workforce would hurt taxpayer-customers from the IRS to Social Security.

"When the Clinton administration imposed sweeping arbitrary workforce cuts (of about 172,000) in the mid-1990s" she said, officials and politicians quickly learned that "the workload didn't change," and outside contractors had to be hired to take up the slack.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which represents both working and retired feds, has mounted what it hopes will be a massive grass roots operation that will touch every congressional office. NARFE, which traditionally has had one of the largest PACs (political action committee funds) calls it " Protect America's Heartbeat". It's set up a system that will generate letters and e-mails to individual members of Congress, especially targeting the Senate. You can find it on their website,

More??? Coming soon from Congress. Votes on plans to extend the current two year pay freeze an additional one to three years, and the plan to reduce future retirement benefits by basing employees' annuity payments on their highest 5-years of service. Under current rules pensions are based on the employees high-3.

Horizontal Divider 7

Expand Search for Bureau of Prisons Director, Attorneys Say

By Krystle Idnani

Two groups representing attorneys are asking Attorney General Eric Holder to cast a wide net in searching for a new director of the Bureau of Prisons.

The American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers wrote in a letter to Holder that it would be a mistake to limit the search to people already working for the bureau. Harley Lappin resigned as bureau director effective May 7. As first reported [1] by Main Justice, Lappin was arrested for drunk driving on Feb. 26, although DOJ officials said he had decided to leave before the arrest.

The letter, first reported by The Blog of Legal Times [2], sharply criticizes the bureau’s leadership, saying that the dramatic increase in the size of the prison population "has not been accompanied by corresponding changes in management philosophy and institutional culture."

The groups added, "If agency size alone were the measure of importance, the search for a new BOP director would be as rigorous as the search for a new FBI director."

Horizontal Divider 7

AFGE Praises Reintroduction of Contracting Reform Bill

CLEAN UP bill would restore integrity to federal sourcing process

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The American Federation of Government Employees today applauded Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., for reintroducing legislation that would put a halt to the rampant outsourcing of inherently governmental functions.

"The Mikulski-Sarbanes CLEAN UP Act is vital to any serious effort to save taxpayer dollars and restore integrity to the federal sourcing process," AFGE National President John Gage said. "All Americans who depend on the federal government for important services are indebted to them for their courageous leadership."

The CLEAN UP (Correction of Longstanding Errors in Agencies Unsustainable Procurements) Act would:

  • Establish overarching principles to govern sourcing. This would ensure that functions deemed inherently governmental, closely associated with inherently governmental or mission-essential are performed by reliable and experienced federal employees. Other functions would shift between federal employees and contractors, depending on which is more efficient and effective, consistent with agency needs and any competition requirements.
  • Encourage agencies to insource new functions in order to avoid sole-source and limited competition contracts.
  • Ensure that agencies incrementally insource inherently governmental, closely associated with inherently governmental, and mission-essential functions that have been wrongly contracted out.
  • Ensure that agencies identify where they are experiencing or expect to experience shortages of federal employees.
  • Establish internal business process reengineering as an alternative to the costly and controversial OMB Circular A-76 privatization process.
  • Recommend that critically needed reforms to the A-76 process finally be undertaken.

The CLEAN UP Act would build on previous actions by Congress to restore fairness to the contracting out process. Congress already has passed legislation that requires agencies to conduct formal cost comparisons before any work can be outsourced; excludes health care and retirement costs from the cost comparison process to prevent contractors from winning contracts by providing bad benefits; establishes basic bid protest rights for federal employees; requires agencies to inventory their service contracts to identify contracts that are poorly performed, include inherently governmental functions, or cost too much; suspends the infamous OMB Circular A-76 privatization process; and requires that agencies give "special consideration" to insourcing functions that can be performed more efficiently in-house or are so important or sensitive that they never should have been outsourced in the first place.

"AFGE is proud that so many of the sourcing policies we have championed have become law, benefiting taxpayers and all Americans who depend on the federal government for important services," Gage said. "The CLEAN UP Act is the logical next step."

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union, representing 625,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia.

Horizontal Divider 7

Federal worker pensions emerge as target in debt-reduction talks

By Lori Montgomery

The generous pension system enjoyed by millions of federal workers from clerks to senators and judges has emerged as a key target in negotiations between Vice President Biden and congressional leaders looking to restrain the growing national debt.

Republicans have proposed saving more than $120 billion over the next decade by requiring the civilian workforce to contribute more toward retirement — a plan that would effectively impose an immediate 5 percent pay cut on more than 2 million federal employees. President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission has also endorsed the idea, calling the federal system “out of line” with the private sector.

Now, administration officials have expressed interest in raising the amount that employees contribute to their pensions — though probably not as high as the GOP proposal, definitely not as fast and possibly not for all workers, according to people in both parties familiar with the discussions.

If adopted as part of a compromise plan to control federal borrowing, the proposal promises to test the resolve of local lawmakers — particularly Democrats — by forcing them to choose between the lofty goal of debt reduction and the interests of public-sector workers, who have come under fire from Republicans in Washington and several state capitals.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) may be the first to face that dilemma. One of only six lawmakers at the table in the Biden talks, Van Hollen represents a suburban Washington district that is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of federal employees.

Van Hollen has vocally opposed the GOP pension proposal, which was included in the budget blueprint that passed the House last month. He declined to comment on the closed-door talks at Blair House, which have already set off alarm bells among union leaders.

“We’re very concerned,” said Maureen Gilman, legislative and political director for the National Treasury Employees Union, noting that federal workers were hit in January with a two-year pay freeze.

“These are difficult times, and federal employees understand this,” Gilman said. “But we’d like to see some other people in the shared pot for sacrifice before anybody comes back to us for seconds.”

Hard road ahead

The proposal to change pension funding represents one of the plumpest pots of potential savings under discussion by the Biden group. The White House has not previously endorsed the idea, and a White House spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the private nature of the talks.

The issue illustrates the hard road ahead for policymakers trying to rebalance the federal budget. Participants in the Biden talks have temporarily set aside the most ideologically divisive issues, such as raising taxes and cutting entitlement benefits. But while the remaining targets are smaller, they are also guarded by a thicket of lobbyists and interest groups.

Since May 5, negotiators have focused on a list of proposed reductions to “mandatory” programs, which are financed outside the annual appropriations process. The Republican-controlled House’s budget blueprint includes $715 billion in such savings through 2021; Obama has offered $290 billion.

Negotiators have identified areas of overlap that could save as much as $200 billion over the next decade, sources familiar with the talks said, though that figure is expected to shrink as the two sides hash out details.

“We just tasked the staff with about 10 things we all agree that we had to go back and look at, things that we weren’t crazy about looking at and a lot of things they weren’t crazy about looking at,” Biden told reporters Thursday after the most recent meeting.

The potential savings include as much as $30 billion in farm subsidies, nearly $20 billion from making graduate students pay interest on college loans while still in school and $16 billion in higher premiums for private pensions insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Airlines could face higher security fees. TV stations could be encouraged to sell under-used airwaves. And both sides want to save money by overhauling mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Virtually every idea has a ready stable of opponents: The National Association of Broadcasters opposes voluntary broadcast spectrum sales, fearing that small stations could be pressured by deep-pocket wireless providers. Big business and organized labor both oppose higher PBGC premiums. And rural conservatives in the Senate have long protected the nation’s farmers.

Changing the federal pension system is no exception. Worker advocates vow a fierce fight, arguing that the idea is driven more by partisan ideology than fiscal responsibility.

“There’s a not-so-hidden agenda to go after federal workers and the public employee unions that represent them. And we’ve seen this across the country, whether in Wisconsin or in the federal government,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), a fiscal conservative whose Northern Virginia district is home to nearly 60,000 federal workers.

Even some Republicans are not happy with the House pension proposal. As he cast a vote for the GOP budget blueprint, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said, “I regret that the . . . proposal seeks to make government service an unattractive career choice,” in part “by changing retirement plans.”

Bipartisan plan

Still, the pension proposal is hardly partisan. Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, promoted it in a September brief, arguing that federal workers “enjoy one of the most generous retirement plans in the country.”

Created in 1986, the system features a thrift savings program similar to a 401(k) retirement account and a traditional, defined-benefit pension, which is fast disappearing at private companies. The system provides benefits that are slightly “more generous than what most other middle-class families receive in retirement,” the brief says, but federal employees contribute strikingly little. Just $1 of every $15 paid into the pension plan, known as the Federal Employment Retirement System or FERS, comes from workers’ paychecks.

Overall, Third Way calculates that federal taxpayers are far more generous to their employees than private-sector companies, contributing 12.7 percent of payroll to retirement accounts vs. 5.3 percent in the private sector.

“Everyone should have a decent retirement system, but the match there is out of line,” said Jim Kessler, a Third Way co-founder who said he has been interested in the issue since his days as an aide to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“A tiny amount was taken out of my paycheck. And when I left, I kept wondering how the amount I put in could” generate such handsome benefits, he said.

House Republicans picked up Third Way’s proposal to require workers to contribute 6 percent of salary to FERS, equalizing payments with the federal government. Because workers currently contribute 0.8 percent, the change would amount to more than a 5 percent pay cut.

Federal employee unions dispute the need for adjustments, arguing that FERS is already significantly less generous than its predecessor, the Civil Service Retirement System. CSRS paid retirees $2,587 per month on average in 2007, versus $944 for FERS, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, one of the largest representing federal workers. And unlike many state employee pension systems, FERS is fully funded.

“We’re sort of surprised, actually, to see the attacks on this as if it were some kind of a gold-plated system,” said Gilman, the union legislative director.

David John, a retirement expert at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that FERS “is far more responsible than most of the state and local pension plans.” But at a time when the federal government is spending drastically more than it takes in, he said, it is reasonable to ask whether taxpayers can afford it.

In the private sector, less than 20 percent of workers still have access to a traditional pension, John said. “With FERS, everyone does.

Horizontal Divider 7

Will pepper spray make U.S. prisons safer? 

The Jan. 29 killing of Monroe correction officer Jayme Biendl has focused attention on the safety of the people doing the difficult and dangerous work of running Washington's prisons.

State lawmakers responded by approving legislation, now awaiting the governor's signature, clearing the way for officers to use special body alarms, panic buttons on radios and, in some instances, pepper spray.

A federal Government Accountability Office report released this month suggests the Federal Bureau of Prisons could benefit from an evaluation of protective equipment for its corrections officers, including providing them with pepper spray, batons and better access to other weapons. Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson wrote Thursday that the American Federation of Government Employees is citing the report's findings as important to the safety of federal prison workers.

Pepper spray cannisters, along with special alarms that signal for help even if an officer can't, were recommended by federal corrections experts who reviewed Washington's prison policies and practices at the request of Gov. Chris Gregoire. The review was part of the examination of the circumstances leading up to Biendl's killing in the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory. An internal state Corrections Department review is underway, and results are expected within the next several weeks.

While the federal report focusing on Monroe suggested new equipment for officers, it also made the point that pepper spray and body alarms alone aren't going to make Washington's prisons safer. The GAO's report reaches contains similar conclusions:

"Equipment available to officers is one important part of officer safety; however, there are other factors--such as those related to the movement of inmates throughout the facility and the skills and training of prison personnel--that impact both officers' safety and the overall safety of the institution."

Horizontal Divider 7

When correctional officers

Being a prison guard is dangerous work. But life could be a little less hazardous for federal correctional officers if the Bureau of Prisons provided more protective gear.

That’s the word from the American Federation of Government Employees, which is using a Government Accountability Office report to press for additional resources.

“Correctional officers are unarmed, violence is increasing and the inmate population has increased,” said Bryan Lowry, president of the union’s Council of Prison Locals. “Protective equipment such as batons and pepper spray would greatly enhance officer safety.”

This has been a long-standing complaint by the union, and the report gives them more ammunition:

“States have discretion over the equipment they make available to their officers, and officials in the 14 states with whom we spoke provided examples of three types of equipment they allow their officers to carry while on duty that BOP generally does not, including pepper spray and batons,” GAO said. “In addition, officials from 9 of the 14 states reported that they allow their officers to store personal firearms that they have carried when commuting to and from work on facility property, which BOP generally does not.”

It’s worth noting, however, that GAO said it knows of no evaluations on the effectiveness of equipment in ensuring officer safety. And 14 states is far from a majority of the 50.

The union also urged the administration and Congress to continue the Federal Prison Industries work program for inmates.

“It helps keep 18,972 prison inmates productively occupied in labor-intensive activities, thereby reducing inmate idleness and the violence associated with that idleness,” according to the labor organization. “It also provides strong incentives to encourage good inmate behavior.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.

The labor of telework

In its “Guide to Telework in the Federal Government,” the Office of Personnel Management provides managers and employees with information on implementing the telework law that took effect in December.

As with everything in government, Uncle Sam has a series of hurdles that must be jumped before something as simple as working from home is allowed.

No matter if staffers work from home regularly or only on special occasions, they “must first successfully complete an interactive telework training program provided by the agency and must enter into a written agreement with his/her supervisor.”

Although the law and the 40-page guide encourage telework, the OPM document also says, in boldface type, “telework is not an employee right.”

In case employees had any other ideas, the booklet reminds them, again in boldface, “telework is primarily an arrangement established to facilitate the accomplishment of work.”

By June 7, each executive agency is required to establish a telework policy and notify all workers of telework eligibility, according to the report. But don’t confuse eligibility with participation. Determination of eligibility for individual workers is at the discretion of agencies.

There are only two categories of employees deemed ineligible by law: those who have been disciplined for being absent without permission for more than five days in a year, and those disciplined for downloading or exchanging pornography on a government computer.

Presumably that covers only a small number of workers.

IRS’s plain-spokenness

You can say lots of things about the IRS, but don’t accuse it of using bad language, though it has been the target of profanity more than once.

The agency was presented with a Grand ClearMark Award on Thursday night by the Center of Plain Language for easy-to-follow directions on two forms.

“The IRS has worked hard to overcome its image with Americans, and these two revised forms are a sign that the IRS has changed,” said Annetta Cheek, who chairs the center’s board.

The judges cited use of the active voice and the words “we” and “you” to help the agency personally connect with taxpayers as reasons for honoring the IRS. The forms, still with government code names CP08 and CP21A, can be found at

The Defense Department also was cited by the center but as a finalist for the WonderMark Award, which is given for the most confounding language.

Read, if you can make your way through it, this 86-word sentence on the Defense Department form that caught the center’s attention:

“In cases when the user has consented to content searching or monitoring of communications or data for personnel misconduct, law enforcement, or counterintelligence investigative searching, (i.e., for all communications and data other than privileged communications or data that are related to personal representation or services by attorneys, psychotherapists, or clergy, and their assistants), the U.S. Government may, solely at its discretion and in accordance with DoD policy, elect to apply a privilege or other restriction on the U.S. Government’s otherwise-authorized use or disclosure of such information.”

Enough said. Make that too much said.

Horizontal Divider 7

NIC asked to Survey operation following murder of Washington State corrections officer

In the wake of the murder of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl, state officials asked for the National Institute of Corrections to survey Monroe’s operation and offer suggestions for changes to improve officer safety.

The federal investigators released their report this week, calling on officers to wear personal body alarms and carry pepper spray to improve their safety. They suggest fewer inmates per cell and improved training. Those and other recommendations from the panel must be part of the state’s strategy to respond to the murder of the 34-year-old prison officer, who had been with the department since 2002.

It was the evening of Jan. 29, at 9:14 p.m. when the staff in the Washington State Reformatory Unit at Monroe conducted a routine count of offenders and discovered that an inmate was missing. The offender, Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist, was found three minutes later in chapel lobby and told officers he had planned to escape.

An hour later staff members completed an inventory of equipment and discovered that a correctional officer’s keys and radio were missing. Staff members immediately went to the chapel where she worked and found her unresponsive. The staff conducted CPR and called for immediate medical assistance. Emergency responders declared officer Biendle dead at the scene at 10:49 p.m. and the prison was placed on immediate lockdown.

Scherf has pleaded not guilty to aggravated first-degree murder in Snohomish County Superior Court and could face the death penalty if convicted. According to court documents, Scherf earlier confessed to killing Biendl, saying he was angry with the way she spoke to him minutes earlier.

Eldon Vail, superintendent of the Department of Corrections, said, "We will look for ways to make prisons safer for our staff in addition to the actions we have already taken. We recognize every correctional agency can find ways to improve and are working closely with the National Institute of Corrections to find additional steps we can take to ensure the safety of our staff members.

Among a handful of state reviews, the governor asked for an outside review from the National Institute of Corrections which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. The institute provides training, policy development and other services to federal, state, and local corrections agencies.

Now Vail and Gregoire have the blueprint for progress, not just at Monroe, but across the state’s prison system. Among more than a dozen safety improvements are:

Adding custody staff at all major facilities who are responsible for ensuring the whereabouts of all prison employees.

Evaluating and enhancing the radio system to include moving panic buttons to the microphone area.

Piloting a proximity card system at the Washington State Reformatory and the Washington State Penitentiary to track staff locations. Follow up with installation at all facilities.

Horizontal Divider 7

Former OSC chief to spend at least a month in prison

By Dan Friedman

A federal magistrate judge ruled Wednesday evening that Scott Bloch, the controversial former head of the Office of Special Counsel, must serve at least one month in prison for a misdemeanor contempt-of-Congress charge. Bloch pleaded guilty last year to withholding information from a House oversight committee that was investigating what he claimed was the accidental deletion of files on government computers being sought by investigators examining whether Bloch improperly forced out former OSC employees. Both legal teams argued that the law for contempt of Congress can be punishable with a term of no less than one month, but that the sentence is not mandatory. In her ruling, however, Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson wrote that Congress "expressly provided for a mandatory minimum sentence of one month... that the language by which it did so is unambiguous; and that no authority permits the court to disregard the provision, or to interpret it other than in accordance with its plain meaning."

The sentencing comes more than a week after OSC released a report concluding an investigation begun by Bloch, which found that White House and Cabinet officials in the Bush administration violated laws against political activity by federal employees. Critics of the investigation argue that Bloch's sentencing undermines the legitimacy of the probe.

Horizontal Divider 7

Inmate strikes employee at US Penitentiary Atwater


ATWATER -- A correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater was taken to a hospital Tuesday afternoon after being assaulted by an inmate.

The assault is under investigation, said Miguel Chavez, public information officer for USP Atwater. Union officials confirmed the injured employee was a correctional officer, but the prison hasn't released the officer's gender or identity.

The inmate approached the officer about 2 p.m. and struck the officer in the face inside one of the prison's housing units, Chavez said. After being treated for injuries by the prison's medical staff, the officer was taken to a hospital for evaluation as a precautionary measure, Chavez said. The officer is in stable condition.

The inmate was subdued, and the FBI has been notified about the assault, Chavez said.

Andy Krotik, spokesman for the organization Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, said the assault is an example of why correctional officers need batons, mace and better stab-proof vests to safely perform their jobs.

The correctional officer was conducting a routine cell search alone when the incident happened, Krotik said. The officer sustained major head trauma and was drenched in blood from head to toe after the assault.

Friends and Family of Correctional Officers was created soon after USP Atwater Correctional Officer Jose Rivera was killed in 2008 at the prison by two drunken inmates who stabbed him to death in a housing unit.

"Yet again, this just goes to prove that correctional officers at USP Atwater do not have the tools to defend themselves," Krotik said about Tuesday's attack.

Deactivating six of the prison's seven security towers in January also has caused concern for correctional officer safety, said Krotik, adding that 18 positions vacated from the towers should be used to increase staffing in housing units.

Instead, the 18 freed-up shifts have been used to alleviate overtime, he said. "How many more attacks and how many more people have to die?" Krotik said. "It's a ticking time bomb."

In the housing units, it's common for one correctional officer to be among more than 100 inmates, often with nothing more than a set of keys and a panic button, he said.

Donald Martin, AFGE Local 1242 Atwater Prison Union president and chief executive officer, said correctional officer safety should be a priority, and he agreed with Krotik's ways to make that happen.

"Our priority right now is getting support to our brother officer and his family," Martin said. "We continue to believe that putting a second officer in the housing units as well as properly equipping our officers is key to improving safety at the penitentiary."

The prison went on temporary lockdown after the incident, Chavez said.

This was the first assault by an inmate on a staff member at the prison this year.

USP Atwater houses about 1,150 high-security male inmates.

Horizontal Divider 7

Rest In Peace Officer Johnson

SD Officer Murdered During Failed Escape Attempt

By Dirk Lammers

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — One of the inmates suspected of killing a 63-year-old guard during a failed South Dakota prison break had escaped the state penitentiary two other times during his 27-year criminal history.

The state Department of Corrections says inmates Rodney Berget and Eric Robert, both 48, tried to escape shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday, assaulting and killing officer Ronald Johnson in the process. The Corrections Department said the inmates were apprehended on the prison grounds and taken to a jail in Sioux Falls . They have not yet been charged in the guard's killing.

Berget has been in and out of South Dakota 's prison system since the mid-1980s and is serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping. He was convicted of escaping from the penitentiary in 1984 while serving time on a possession of stolen property charge. Then, in 1987, he and five other inmates broke out of the same facility on Memorial Day by cutting through bars in an auto shop. Berget was caught in mid-July of that year.

John Fitzgerald, Lawrence County state's attorney, thought Berget would have no more opportunities to commit crimes after he pleaded guilty in Dec. 2003 to attempted first-degree murder for allegedly trying to kill his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend.

"It's shocking to me as a prosecuting attorney, but he's a very violent person." Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said that on June 2, 2003, Berget waited outside a house in Lead for the boyfriend to show up. Before the boyfriend could open the front door, Berget shot through the door's glass window, hitting the man in the stomach, then entered the house to try to kill him, Fitzgerald said.

According to Fitzgerald, Berget's ex-girlfriend stopped Berget when she drew a gun from the bed stand.

"When he was captured, he confessed that his intent was to go in there and kill, murder the boyfriend," Fitzgerald said. "And then he also said that his intent was to kidnap and torture the woman.

"Luckily she had a gun ... otherwise, I think, he would have got the job done."

Berget, of Aberdeen , also was convicted in Meade County for kidnapping a convenience store clerk in Sturgis. He was arrested and the clerk escaped after troopers used road spikes to stop the car near Midland .

Robert, the other suspect in Tuesday's killing and attempted escape, is serving an 80-year sentence for a kidnapping conviction. In that case, an 18-year-old woman told police a man posing as a plainclothes police officer pulled over her car near Black Hawk, told her he needed to search it and then forced her into the trunk. She used her cell phone to call for help, and she was found unharmed.

Robert, of Piedmont , pleaded guilty to kidnapping in a 2005 plea bargain.

Johnson, who worked at the penitentiary for more than 23 years, was pronounced dead at a hospital, and a second guard suffered minor injuries in the incident. The department did not release the second guard's name or further details about the escape attempt or attack.

Johnson, a father of two and grandfather of six, died on his birthday, said his son, Jesse Johnson.

"That's kind of the gut-wrenching thing about it," he told the Argus Leader newspaper.

Jesse Johnson said his father, known to friends and family as R.J., had lived through a riot at the penitentiary in 1993 and knew the danger of his job but never dwelled on it.

"He loved to relax and play with his grandkids," the son said. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody."

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said the state Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating and more information would be released once the initial investigation and charging decisions are complete.

If the inmates are charged and convicted of murdering Johnson while trying to escape, prosecutors could seek the death penalty.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the state will act swiftly to bring the accused to justice and ensure the safety of prison staff.

"This incident is a somber reminder that our prison guards put themselves at risk, every day, to protect South Dakota from our worst criminals," Daugaard said in a statement.

Before Tuesday's incident, two corrections officers had been killed by inmates in the 130-year-history of the state penitentiary, the Argus Leader reported. Corrections records show that 72-year-old Warden Eugene Reiley was killed in 1936, and officer Edward Jaworski was killed in 1951.

Johnson is the first law enforcement official killed in the line of duty in South Dakota since the 2009 slaying of Turner County Sheriff's Deputy Chad Mechels by 21-year-old Ethan Johns, who was sentenced to life.

Horizontal Divider 7


Proposal relies on false, misleading claims to suit partisan agenda

WASHINGTON – House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has lost any shred of integrity by introducing a 2012 budget resolution that is full of false assumptions, misleading statements and factual errors, the head of the largest federal employee union said today.

"Congressman Ryan unfairly targets federal workers by proposing to freeze federal wages, cut the work force and drastically raise pension contributions," American Federation of Government Employees National President John Gage said. "It’s a shameful attack on federal workers who were not the cause of this massive budget deficit and can’t be the cure."

"While that’s bad enough, Congressman Ryan doesn’t even bother to check his facts. His budget proposal contains so many inaccurate and outright preposterous claims that it wouldn’t hold up to a middle school debate team," Gage said.

In attempting to justify extending to five years the current freeze on federal wages and salaries, Ryan compares average federal wages to median private sector wages. Even worse, his so-called "median private sector wage" actually is a median household income figure from the Census Bureau.

"Paul Ryan isn’t just comparing apples to oranges; he’s comparing a single apple to a basket full of oranges. It’s rotten any way you slice it," Gage said.

Ryan says he’s "applying private-sector realities" to federal employees’ pay and benefits by proposing to dramatically increase federal employees’ contributions to their pensions. What he fails to mention is that the current system is fully funded and was created by President Reagan to explicitly match private sector practice, Gage said.

Ryan also makes the nonsensical claim that cutting the number of federal workers will boost private-sector employment and specifically criticizes the increase in federal workers during the Obama administration. This despite the fact that three-fourths of that increase was in three departments – Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security – in response to national security requirements that predated President Obama’s election.

"I’d like Paul Ryan to explain to me how supporting our troops, taking care of our wounded warriors and protecting our borders is hampering private-sector job creation," Gage said.

Ryan’s budget plan also is full of doublespeak meant to appease certain folks who can read between the lines, Gage said. Although he talks about "ending corporate welfare," what he’s proposing is just the opposite.

"He wants to repeal the financial reforms Congress put in place after the financial meltdown, dismantle modest environmental protections even as oil spills and nuclear meltdowns make headlines around the world and cut the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans," Gage said.

"I urge lawmakers not to be fooled by the catchy slogans and feel good hyperbole in Paul Ryan’s budget plan. This is just more of the same from a Republican-led House that is intent on killing safety net programs for the middle and lower classes while giving even larger tax breaks to the wealthy."

Horizontal Divider 7

Treasury may borrow federal retirement funds in debt emergency

The government could temporarily tap tens of billions of dollars from two federal employee retirement programs if Congress fails to raise the federal debt ceiling next month, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told lawmakers.

The government expects to hit a $14.3 trillion debt ceiling on May 16 or before, Geithner said in a Monday letter.

Geither implored Congress to extend the debt ceiling by that deadline and said that if Congress does not, Treasury will be forced to borrow money from the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, and the Thrift Savings Plan's Government Securities Investment Fund, or G Fund, both of which are invested in U.S. Treasury securities. Those two moves could free up $142 billion through early July.

The government has taken similar steps before with no effect upon federal retirees. If the debt ceiling is extended by Congress within a couple months of the deadline, retirees and TSP participants should have nothing to worry about, several experts said. By law, both funds have to be repaid with interest, said Susan Irving, director for federal budget analysis at the Government Accountability Office.

"I would anticipate no impact," echoed Dan Adcock, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Geithner said borrowing money from the federal retirement programs and other "extraordinary measures" available to the government would stave off the need to raise the debt ceiling until around July 8. Once those measures are exhausted, the government "will be limited in its ability to make payments across the government," Geithner said.

In that case, retirees' pensions could be affected. Adcock said that, if that were to happen, any impact on retirement payouts would be "the least of their problems because we'll face a worldwide economic collapse.

"I think people would understand what's at stake and cooler heads would prevail," Adcock added.

Horizontal Divider 7

Bill would boost federal manager training

Lawmakers on Tuesday reintroduced legislation that would require agencies to provide regular training to federal managers.

The bipartisan bill would require federal supervisors to receive training within one year of becoming a manager, and once every three years after that. Training topics include developing and discussing goals and objectives with employees; mentoring; managing poor performers; and understanding collective bargaining rights.

The legislation also directs the Office of Personnel Management to develop required competencies for managers that agencies would use to assess individual performance. In addition, agencies would have to create a mentoring program for new supervisors to use to learn from experienced managers.

The Federal Managers Association and the Professional Managers Association praised the bill. "Managerial prowess is not inherent, and independent research has concluded that arming federal managers and supervisors with the skills needed to promote employee accountability, engagement and teamwork leads to improved agency performance," said FMA National President Patricia Niehaus.

The bill's sponsor is Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee. He was joined on the House side by three Northern Virginia representatives -- Democrats Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran, and Republican Frank Wolf.

"Improving training for federal supervisors," Wolf said, "will create a better work environment for all federal employees, increase employee performance and productivity, and lead to a more effective federal government."

The bill would expand on supervisor training requirements in the 2004 Federal Workforce Flexibility Act, which directs agencies to devise manager training programs.

Horizontal Divider 7

Late U.S. budget deal avoids costly shutdown

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders struck a last-minute budget deal on Friday to narrowly avert a government shutdown that would have hit the economy and idled hundreds of thousands of workers.

With a little over an hour to spare before a midnight deadline, Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans agreed to a bitterly fought compromise plan that will cut about $38 billion in spending for the rest of the fiscal year.

Congress then quickly approved a stopgap funding measure to keep the federal government running into next week until the budget agreement can be formally approved.

A shutdown -- the first in more than 15 years -- would have weakened the U.S. economic recovery, forced furloughs for some 800,000 federal employees, closed national parks and monuments and even delayed paychecks for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the biggest incentive for a deal may have been the risks that failure would have posed for Obama, his Democrats and the Republicans just as the 2012 presidential election campaign gathers steam.

Public frustration over the budget fight had surged as Democrats and Republicans traded blame and a shutdown loomed.

"Tomorrow, I'm pleased to announce that the Washington Monument as well as the entire federal government will be open for business," Obama said in a late-night appearance at the White House shortly after the agreement was reached.

It provides the largest spending cuts in U.S. history, a victory for Republicans who won control of the House of Representatives in November on promises to scale back government.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who came under intense pressure from Tea Party conservatives inside his own Republican Party to take an even tougher stance, said the deal clears the way for bigger spending cuts in coming years.

But Obama and the Democrats were able to beat back a Republican effort to block birth control funding to the Planned Parenthood family planning organization, because it also provides abortions -- though not with public money.

"Both sides had to make tough decisions and give ground on issues that were important to them," Obama said. "Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful."


Still, the fight did little to improve the view Americans have of their political leaders, and raised concerns about the ability of Obama and a divided Congress to deal with bigger issues, from raising the federal debt ceiling to reining in budget deficits.

Even some lawmakers said the bitter feuding had sent a bad message to the rest of the world.

"They've got to be laughing at us right now" in China, said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.

Fears that a government shutdown would hurt economic growth had pressured the dollar and U.S. Treasury prices on Friday.

All sides agreed the debate had been long and painful.

"It has been a grueling process. We didn't do it at this late hour for drama. We did it because it has been very hard to arrive at this point," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

After the deal was finally reached, White House Budget Director Jack Lew told federal agencies to continue their normal operations.

But there will almost certainly be a much bigger showdown over the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.

Republicans are already pledging to slash taxes and overhaul Medicaid and Medicare, government-run health programs for the poor and elderly. The Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to flatly reject those plans.

A government shutdown could have been a negative for Obama as he seeks re-election. But there were significant risks for Republican leaders, too, especially if they were seen as being under the thumb of Tea Party radicals.

The budget battle has dominated Obama's agenda even as he struggles to balance Americans' chief concerns -- jobs and the economy -- with foreign policy challenges topped by Middle East turmoil and U.S. military involvement in the Libyan conflict.

Horizontal Divider 7

Agencies told to begin furlough notifications

Federal employees can expect to begin receiving furlough notices immediately, according to a memo to agency officials released on Thursday by the Office of Management and Budget.

Agency leadership should tell employees if they will be considered "exempt" and allowed to continue working, or if they will be furloughed if the existing temporary budget law expires at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, the memo from OMB Director Jacob "Jack" Lew said.

Agencies are encouraged to issue furlough notices electronically.

Lew said agencies must complete the notification process no later than the close of business on Friday, which will be considered a "normal workday" for employees.

"We know that the current uncertainty and threat of a shutdown is a tremendous burden on federal employees and therefore, earlier this week, we encouraged agencies to reach out to all employees regarding the possible lapse in appropriations," he wrote.

Agencies also are encouraged to immediately reach out to stakeholders, such as federal labor unions, state, local and tribal governments, grantees, contractors, and congressional committees to discuss their contingency planning, he wrote.

"We're taking these steps because responsible management demands it," OMB Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients said during a White House press briefing. "We still hope that we do not have to execute the plans, but we are prepared to implement if necessary."

If funding lapses, then federal workers, including those who are furloughed, will be allowed to perform up to four hours of work on their next scheduled workday to conduct orderly shutdown activities.

"Ordinarily, furloughed employees should take no more than three or four hours to provide necessary notices and contact information, secure their files, complete time and attendance records, and otherwise make preparations to preserve their work," Lew wrote.

Nonexempted employees who are scheduled to telework on their next scheduled workday will be allowed to perform these shutdown activities from their telework location. Agencies also can allow other nonexempt employees to conduct these shutdown activities from a remote location if those tasks can be done quickly -- in an estimated 15 minutes -- even if they were not scheduled to telecommute. Such activities would include receiving and acknowledging receipt of an electronic furlough notice, and updating voicemail and email responses to reflect their current work status, the memo stated.

Agencies will have the discretion to decide if furloughed employees must turn in their work-issued BlackBerrys, cellphones or laptops, or if they simply should be instructed to cease to use the devices during a shutdown.

"Orderly shutdown procedures should not rely on mobile devices or home access to work email for providing notices of when to return to work," the memo said. "Agencies have discretion to enforce these access restrictions in light of their own particular needs. Some may choose, for example, to include in orderly shutdown activities a requirement that furloughed employees turn in their BlackBerrys until they return to the office; others may determine that circumstances warrant a different approach."

Agencies also will have some leeway in dealing with employees on temporary duty assignments away from their normal duty stations. Those workers are encouraged, OMB said, to make arrangements to return home sooner than anticipated "wherever reasonable and practicable. However, agencies should make a determination of reasonableness and practicality based on the length of the assignment and the time required for return travel, compared to the anticipated length of the lapse, so as to minimize the burdens of doing so."

Horizontal Divider 7

Shutdown would close 5 national parks, could slow some contract work

WASHINGTON - As budget talks in Congress stood at an impasse Tuesday, federal workers and contractors across Minnesota began bracing for a government shutdown looming as early as Friday at midnight.

Mail and Social Security checks would still get delivered, along with other "essential" services, such as medical care at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center.

But Minnesota's five national parks and recreation areas would close and some of the state's largest institutions and businesses could see grants and contracts interrupted by a federal funding lapse.

How much depends on partisan differences that are pitting the Obama administration against GOP leaders in the U.S. House, where a Tea Party faction that includes Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann is pressing for deeper cuts.

Facing a potential shutdown with uncertain political consequences, Bachmann downplayed the consequences should the two sides fail to reach a deal or bridge a gap of tens of billions of dollars for the fiscal year that ends in September.

"There is no such thing as a true government shutdown," Bachmann said at a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill last week. "If government shuts down, it's actually a slowdown."

One twist that has received little attention in the budget debate is that state businesses could feel the shutdown before the public does.

From the University of Minnesota to Rochester's Mayo Clinic, federal contractors and large institutions here rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts. That money would stop flowing after Friday.

"In a nutshell, any shutdown of the federal government would have a negative impact on the University of Minnesota," said Daniel Wolter, a spokesman for the university, which received $800 million in competitive research grants last year, most of which were federal.

A brief shutdown would cause only a ripple, Wolter said. In a protracted shutdown, he said, "the cash flow problem gets larger."

Students face less of a problem. Virtually all of the university's spring financial aid has been dispersed. Students who want to change their aid could be affected. But Wolter said "there are a range of options for dealing with these kinds of wrinkles, so it's fair to say it would amount to more of a hassle than anything else."

Planning ahead

Mayo officials are keeping an eye on research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It accounts for 41 percent of Mayo's research budget.

"Mayo Clinic has developed detailed contingency plans," said Randy Schubring, Mayo's government relations spokesman. "We are confident that if a short-term shutdown does occur, it will not affect day-to-day research operations."

Prominent Minnesota businesses such as 3M, Cargill and Medtronic have contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for medical technology, research and military equipment. One of the state's biggest military contractors, Champlin-based Deco Inc., with more than $100 million in security contracts this year, is preparing for the worst.

"We enter our contracts knowing the government has the right to reduce or eliminate services anywhere in the world on a moment's notice," said Deco president and co-owner Derek Dorr. "If Deco is required to reduce services, we in turn reduce workforce."

If history serves as a guide, it's unlikely that a furlough for the state's estimated 10,000 federal workers will produce much savings for taxpayers.

Jane Nygaard, a retired VA nurse who went through the last government shutdown in the mid-'90s, said that in the end, even those non-essential government workers who were shut out of work for three weeks got all their pay.

"When the furlough was done, everyone got paid, whether you worked or not," said Nygaard, now national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees District 8, which includes Minnesota.

Still on the job

Not only that, but after subtracting essential workers such as nurses, air-traffic controllers, meat inspectors, prison guards and border patrol agents, a big chunk of the federal bureaucracy stays in operation.

"Everyone talks about downsizing the federal government," Nygaard said. "But when you really talk about cutting services, all these agencies do things people take for granted."

Among the most conspicuous effects of a shutdown would be the shuttering of the national parks.

"We would just cease operations, which would include, most visibly, our visitor center," said Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

After a half-dozen, stop-gap funding measures since last October, Minnesota lawmakers in Congress were also making plans to stay in Washington over the weekend -- a sign there may be no deal by Friday.

"The speaker's got himself in a bind," said Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, referring to Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. "I think they're gonna shut 'erdown."

Meanwhile, Minnesota Republican John Kline, a close ally of Boehner, expressed his frustration at an impasse over just six months' worth of federal funding -- the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. With an eye toward 2012's even bigger potential spending cuts, Kline said, "that's where the real debate is."

Horizontal Divider 7

AFGE: Shutdown would violate anti-slavery amendment

One of the great unresolved questions about the possible government shutdown is whether essential employees who remain on the job would eventually get paid for the work they did. Experts first told us most likely yes, although not until the budget mess is resolved.

But the Office of Personnel Management muddied the waters last month at a labor-management council meeting when General Counsel Elaine Kaplan said that’s an outstanding legal issue that was left unresolved after the last shutdown. In 1996, Congress decided to pay everybody back — even those who were furloughed.

So nobody really knows whether you’ll ever get paid if you are called back into work this time. It may come down to how generous Congress is feeling toward federal employees these days. (Hint: Not very.)

The American Federation of Government Employees thinks this smacks of involuntary servitude, and would violate the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that outlawed slavery in 1865. AFGE National President John Gage sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder March 28 making that argument, and warning it may be unconstitutional:

Dedicated federal employees will come to work because of their commitment to the people they serve, but they should not be forced to do so under threat of termination and with no compensation. I urge you to work with AFGE and the Office of Management and Budget to craft a plan that avoids the harsh result of federal employees being forced to work without pay or be fired if they are not willing to do so.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed involuntary servitude in 1865 by mandating that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Yet in 2011 the same government that is charged with defending the Constitution appears to be preparing to order vast numbers of civilian employees, who have committed no crime, to work without pay under the threat [of] government initiated administrative discipline. This is frankly outrageous, and we fail to see how such a sweeping order survives constitutional scrutiny.

Horizontal Divider 7

Unions press administration for shutdown plans

Federal unions are pressing the Obama administration to share its plans for how it will handle a possible government shutdown that could occur after April 8.

The American Federation of Government Employees filed a lawsuit March 30 to force the Obama administration to release its shutdown plans.

And the National Federation of Federal Employees sent a letter Tuesday to President Obama and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Jeffrey Zients that said that time has come. NFFE cited Zients' April 4 memo ordering agencies to share contingency plans with senior managers as a sign the shutdown is imminent.

"With a potential government shutdown just days away, it is imperative that federal employees and their union representatives gain access to these documents," NFFE President Bill Dougan said. "It is detrimental to the morale and overall well-being of the workforce to withhold these plans any longer. Now is the time to share these plans with the hardworking federal employees who will be impacted the most by a government shutdown."

AFGE National President John Gage said in a press conference Tuesday that the administration refuses to tell unions anything about what a shutdown might look like, even though AFGE filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the plans March 2. AFGE wants to know which employees will be deemed essential and kept working during a shutdown, how other employees' furloughs will work, and how agencies plan to communicate with employees if the government shuts down after funding runs out April 8.

Gage said he doesn't know why the administration insists on keeping the plans under wraps.

"If this is some mindset that, ‘Well, we don't want to panic employees,' we're grownups," Gage said. "We want to hear what is going to happen so that we can plan our lives and try to make the best of a bad situation."

Unions also asked Zients to release the plans at the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations' March 16 meeting, but Zients said they were not finished yet. He said they would be made available to unions and employees when a shutdown was imminent.

Horizontal Divider 7

Union sues government over lack of shutdown information

The largest federal employee union is suing the government for failing to provide its leadership with specific details on how a shutdown would affect the federal workforce.

"Just call it for what it is, and explain how extensive it will be," John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said of the looming government shutdown during a Tuesday press briefing. The current continuing resolution that is keeping the government open expires this Friday, April 8.

AFGE early last month filed an expedited request with the Office of Management and Budget under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking agencies' contingency plans in the event of a government shutdown. AFGE then filed a complaint dated March 30 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against OMB for failing to respond to its expedited request and provide the information. OMB acknowledged through an official letter to AFGE that it had received the request.

On Monday, OMB sent a memo to agencies directing them to begin preparing their employees for a potential government shutdown. Despite the updated communication, the Obama administration still has not instructed agencies to release copies of their individual shutdown guidance spelling out which employees would be deemed "essential" and allowed to continue working during a shutdown and who would be ordered to stay home, potentially without pay.

"I don't see how having a plan and not notifying your employees about it is any kind of plan," Gage said during the press conference.

Gage said that while the union doesn't want a shutdown, it is preferable to the billions of dollars in spending cuts that lawmakers have proposed. "Employees won't like it [a government shutdown], but they'll understand," he said. Gage estimated the shutdown would last "at least the weekend." He said if the government ceases operation, then the union will instruct its members to report to work and line up outside their offices if they're not allowed in, so "the American people can at least see that federal employees know the importance of their jobs."

OMB did not respond to a request for comment.

Agencies are required through OMB Circular A-11 to develop plans for a government hiatus, including information such as the time it will take to complete the shutdown and the number of essential employees they plan to retain. OMB, the Justice Department and the Office of Personnel Management are supposed to provide agencies with guidance; agencies in turn must inform employees in advance of an impending shutdown and of their status under such circumstances.

The last time the government shut down in 1995 and 1996, for 27 days at an overall cost of $1.4 billion, furloughed federal employees were paid retroactively for the time they were off the job. But it's up to Congress to decide whether to reimburse employees for the time lost, and lawmakers might not be disposed to do so during the current fiscal climate.

In addition to the potential government shutdown, Gage also addressed current legislative proposals to reduce or cut federal employees' pay and benefits. "I don't see this as a shared sacrifice kind of issue. It's more like spread the pain," he said. As for pay-for-performance issues, Gage said the union has proposed to OPM a simpler, "more honest" performance evaluation system, which would root out poor performers without creating more red tape for managers.

AFGE currently is vying to represent transportation security officers who just received collective bargaining rights at the Transportation Security Administration. If employees vote for AFGE representation, Gage said the union's first priority will be to try to dismantle the agency's performance evaluation system, known as PASS. "It's terrible," he said. "The workers hate it to a person."

Horizontal Divider 7

Union Sues OMB to Force Release of Shutdown Plans

With the threat of a government shutdown once again looming, the nation's largest union for federal workers is suing the Office of Management and Budget to release agency contingency plans in an effort to give employees some idea of what they can expect if Congress can't agree on a new funding measure by Friday.

Each federal agency is required to create a contingency plan for a shutdown, but after receiving no response to repeated attempts to obtain those plans through Freedom of Information Act requests, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President John Gage announced today that the union had filed suit in U.S. District Court late last week.

"I don't see how having a plan and not keeping your employees informed of the plan helps anyone," Gage said at an event at the National Press Club this morning. "We're not trying to say that our people won't stand up for the jobs that they love, but I think the American public and President Obama's administration should understand that people have families, they have obligations, they should know before the eve of a shutdown what is happening."

Gage's group is making its own contingency plans.

This week, AFGE is continuing to run an ad blitz on 100 radio stations that urges public employees to contact Congress to oppose cuts to the federal government. And if a government shutdown does occur, Gage said his organization will file another lawsuit on behalf of the many federal employees whose services would be deemed "essential" and therefore be forced to work but who would not paid until the budget crisis is resolved. That lawsuit would be filed under the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude.

If the shutdown stretches into next week, Gage plans to call on all federal employees to show up at their offices anyway on either Tuesday or Wednesday.

"If they don't let them into work, the American public at least can see that federal employees know the importance of their jobs," he said.

And while he was critical of the White House for its failure to keep employees informed about shutdown plans, Gage didn't spare Congress for playing what he described as partisan games with the livelihood of federal workers. He was particularly critical of the deep cuts that Republicans have proposed in their various funding measures.

"When you look at where these cuts are, you can see it's not a deficit issue, it is about going after programs that a certain group never liked to begin with," he said.

Gage pointed to U.S. EPA as a clear example of that effort.

If the GOP gets its way at EPA, "it will really hit inspections, it will really hit water and air" regulations, he said.

Looking beyond the looming threat of a shutdown, Gage also defended federal employees against ongoing efforts to cut the annual "step increases" that are still allowed for despite the two-year pay freeze that President Obama announced late last year. That effort is being led by Republicans in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

On Friday, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and federal workforce Subcommittee Chairman Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for a study of the current General Schedule pay adjustment system and specifically whether that system recognizes employee performance. Ross spokesman Fred Piccolo today described the General Schedule system as a failure.

"Rep. Ross spent 20 years as a business owner," Piccolo said. "There are common-sense business practices that the federal government must employ."

For example, he said, the federal government could extend to two years the probationary period for a new hire so that person's effectiveness can be determined. It could also utilize performance metrics rather than years of service to determine who gets promoted.

"The federal pay system is inflexible, rewards longevity and stagnation, and is not conducive to a mobile and skilled 21st-century workforce," Piccolo said. He said that whatever system is included in legislation that will be proposed through the committee "will be to the benefit of performing federal employees and an end for those addicted to the status quo."

Gage said federal employees could certainly use a much simpler performance management system but said that they deserve the raises they do get under the current system.

"You might have to just recognize that federal employees do a pretty good job; they are well educated; they are seasoned employees," he said.

Horizontal Divider 7

Union blasts secretive Obama administration over looming shutdown

Weeks after President Obama took office, John Gage, the head of the largest union for federal workers in the country, gave a speech hailing the new administration as a champion for "transparency, accountability and good government."

But in a sharply worded federal lawsuit filed last week, that same union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), accused the Obama administration of keeping important government records secret.

Representing more than a half-million federal workers, the union sued the White House budget office and its director, Jacob J. Lew, in U.S. District Court in Washington over what it called the office's "unlawful" failure to respond to an expedited Freedom of Information Act request.

The union filed the information request last month because it wants the Office of Management and Budget to turn over contingency plans on how federal agencies will handle a potential government shutdown, including a list of all federal employees who will continue to report to work "to protect life and property."

AFGE officials also want to know about any guidance from the OMB regarding when federal agencies should implement shutdown plans and how they should do so.

"It's not something that should be cavalierly handled," Mr. Gage said. "If a shutdown goes on, there will be federal employees who are going to be hurt financially. They should know before the eve of a shutdown what is happening, and it should be done orderly and not in a last-minute rush."

Asked about the lawsuit, an OMB spokeswoman Tuesday said the administration has taken unprecedented steps to improve government transparency and "shutdown planning is no exception."

"We still believe there is an opportunity to avoid a costly government shutdown, which would cause undue harm to the lives of federal employees, the services millions of Americans rely on and the economic recovery," spokeswoman Meg Reilly said.

"Plans for shutdown operations, which are governed by the law, remain in development and are pre-decisional at this time. When plans are finalized and reviewed for sensitive information, we will work with agencies to provide it to the public."

In its request for shutdown plans, the union asked OMB for expedited processing, citing an urgent need for the information.

"For example, because this request relates to the possible shutdown of the United States Government due to a failure of its Congress and President to provide appropriated funds for government operations, it cannot be disputed that this is a matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exists possible questions about the government's integrity which effect public confidence," AFGE Assistant General Counsel Andres M. Grajales wrote in the union's request to OMB.

The request letter also cites Mr. Obama's memo on the Freedom of Information Act issued days after he took office directing agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure." In that Jan. 21, 2009, memo, Mr. Obama said, "Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well-grounded in the Constitution."

Mr. Obama also moved to undo the 2001 guidance by Attorney General John Ashcroft that gave government agencies new grounds to deny the release of records. In new directives, Mr. Obama said agencies instead should presume records are open and that the "mere fact you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should."

According to the AFGE lawsuit, however, OMB hasn't provided a response to the union's request as of March 29, nor has the office issued a determination on whether officials will grant the union's request for expedited processing.

In the meantime, the union wants a federal judge to order OMB to turn over the shutdown contingency plans and pay for the union's legal fees in connection with the lawsuit.

The administration's handling of FOIA requests surfaced as a big issue on Capitol Hill last week. Republicans held a hearing scrutinizing a practice by political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security of approving the release of open records requests, which officials at the department said had been discontinued.

The Washington Times conducted a governmentwide FOIA audit in February 2010 by filing requests to more than 100 federal agencies for reports they prepared for the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.

Many agencies have responded, but some have not. Others said they could not locate the records. The Drug Enforcement Administration took more than a year to issue a response letter recently saying The Times' request wasn't specific enough. Larger agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, responding to the same request produced thousands of pages of records within weeks.

Horizontal Divider 7

Union Sends EPA 'Demand To Bargain' Over Looming Government Shutdown

EPA's labor unions are demanding a voice in planning at the agency for a government shutdown that could begin as soon as April 8, saying staff is being left out of the loop as EPA officials decide which employees would be furloughed if a continuing resolution allowing the government to continue operating expires at the end of the week.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) council representing EPA workers April 5 sent to EPA management a “demand to bargain” on plans for a potential shutdown. The council represents more than 10,000 EPA employees across 14 local unions.

The latest demand was conveyed in an email, obtained by Inside EPA, to EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Administration and Resource Management Craig Hooks and other agency officials.

Among the concerns cited in the demand include which employees would be considered “essential,” allowing them to keep working through a shutdown; how a shutdown would affect work or contract deadlines; and what activities employees could engage in during a shutdown.

Union officials have been requesting updates from EPA since early March, when the first potential shutdown deadline loomed, but they say EPA has refused to provide any substantive response to their requests. State officials raised similar concerns last week about the dearth of information they have received from EPA on the effect of a shutdown.

An EPA spokesman referred questions to the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB), which expressed optimism that a shutdown could be avoided but said planning was underway. “We still believe that there is an opportunity to avoid a costly government shutdown, which would cause undue harm to the lives of federal employees, the services millions of Americans rely on, and the economic recovery underway,” an OMB spokeswoman says. “Plans for shutdown operations, which are governed by the law, remain in development and are pre-decisional at this time.

When plans are finalized and reviewed for sensitive information, we will work with Agencies to provide to the public.”

Congress has to this point prevented a shutdown by passing short-term continuing resolutions (CRs) to keep the government running, but House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House seem to have reached an impasse in negotiations as the latest CR is set to expire April 8.

While House Republicans April 4 released a short-term CR to continue funding the government through April 15, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters April 5 that the White House has rejected their proposal. The GOP measure cut an additional $900 million from EPA's budget for fiscal year 2011, on top of about $237 million in cuts enacted through a previous short-term measure. That would bring the agency’s overall budget to more than $1.1 billion below its FY10 level of $10.3 billion -- and within range of the levels requested by the Obama administration for fiscal year 2012.

The short-term bill does not include any of the controversial amendments aimed at limiting EPA authority that House Republicans included in H.R.

1, their longer-term FY11 funding measure, though House Republicans continue to insist they would like to see some policy limitations included in the final bill.

Collective Bargaining Agreement

In their effort to force EPA to bargain over shutdown procedures, union officials are arguing that under their collective bargaining agreement, the agency may not “change a term or condition of employment that has a significant impact on employees” without providing notice to employees and engaging in bargaining if the union requests it.

A union source says that if EPA ignores the demand, the union could file an unfair labor practice grievance or other action. “We're requesting ability to be involved in a major change in workplace conditions,” the source says.

The demand outlines 10 initial questions on how a shutdown would affect agency personnel, including how EPA will determine what employees remain on the job, e.g. whether they will ask for volunteers, furlough workers based on seniority or rely on another system; whether employees would have to return files or equipment they keep at home; and whether employees who work from home would be responsible for opening any mail they receive or returning calls to a government cell phone.

OMB this week told senior agency officials to begin preparing for a government shutdown, according to a memo obtained by the Washington Post . The memo encouraged agency officials to “communicate with senior managers” on shutdown planning “to ensure that managers are prepared to implement your shutdown plans should the need arise.”

But unions say they have been left out of those conversations, at least at EPA. “There's been no contact from EPA,” the union source says.

Meanwhile, AFGE March 30 sued OMB in U.S District Court for the District of Columbia charging that the budget office has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the union for shutdown contingency plans from federal agencies. The union filed its FOIA request March 2, asking for expedited consideration of its request because of the potential for a shutdown.

According to the complaint, AFGE is asking OMB for “any and all contingency plans submitted to the Office by Federal Executive Branch agencies, including any records containing a description or list of employees or positions that would be required to work without pay in the event of a shutdown.”

The union further says, “AFGE needs the requested records to advise and represent its bargaining unit members in, for example, collective bargaining both before and after any eventual shutdown,” and points out that “nearly all” executive agencies have failed or refused to release the shutdown plans.

Horizontal Divider 7

Union Sues OMB to Get Shutdown Plan

The nation’s largest federal employee union sued the Obama administration to get information about how its members at various agencies will be treated if there’s a government shutdown.

The American Federation of Government Employees union filed its suit March 30 against the White House Office of Management and Budget, four weeks after filing a Freedom of Information Act request that went unanswered. It sought expedited copies of any shutdown contingency plans submitted to OMB by federal agencies, including any records describing or listing employees or positions that would be required to work without pay during a shutdown.

A stopgap measure funding the federal government expires on Friday, and a partial government shutdown is expected if Congress fails to extend the measure or pass legislation funding the government through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which began last Oct. 1.

Federal agencies can require certain employees to work during a shutdown by labeling them as essential, and the union’s president, John Gage, said he’s concerned these workers might not be paid for their time. Mr. Gage, who delivered a speech at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday, said he also needs to know how federal programs and services would be affected.

“It’s not something that should be cavalierly handled. If a shutdown goes on, there will be federal employees who are going to be hurt financially,” he said.  “They should know before the eve of a shutdown what is happening and it should be done orderly and not in a last-minute rush.”

An OMB official said the administration has taken “unprecedented steps” to improve government transparency and accountability, and shutdown planning “is no exception.”

“We still believe that there is an opportunity to avoid a costly government shutdown,” the official said, adding that “Plans for shutdown operations, which are governed by the law, remain in development and are pre-decisional at this time.”

Mr. Gage said he also told  Attorney General Eric Holder in a March 28 letter that requiring federal employees to work without getting paid violates the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He likewise sent a letter to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, asking how long “essential employees” can be required to work during a shutdown without being paid.

AFGE represents 600,000 federal and Washington, D.C., workers at more than 70 agencies.

Horizontal Divider 7

As Shutdown Looms, Agencies Brace for Its Impact

The National Zoo would close, but the lions and tigers would get fed; Yellowstone and other national parks would shut down. The Internal Revenue Service could stop issuing refund checks. Customs and Border Patrol agents training officials in Afghanistan might have to come home. And thousands of government-issued BlackBerrys would go silent.

This is what a government shutdown might look like.

With budget talks between Republicans and Democrats far from resolution, official Washington braced on Tuesday for a replay of the Great Government Shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. For weeks, the Obama administration has been quietly examining the experience of the mid-1990s as a kind of shutdown survival guide. Now those preparations have kicked into high gear.

The White House Office of Management and Budget directed the heads of federal agencies on late Monday to share contingency plans with senior managers. On Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Committee on House Administration warned “nonessential employees” on Tuesday to turn off their BlackBerrys during a shutdown, or risk punishment for working while on furlough.

And at the Smithsonian Institution, employees were preparing for a lot of disappointed tourists. The 1995 and 1996 shutdowns occurred in the dead of winter. Now it is spring break; Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman, said the Smithsonian has sold 23,000 advance tickets for cafeteria meals and Imax movies in April. Her staff was prepared to print “Closed Due to Government Shutdown” signs to tape to windows in their museums.

“I got a call yesterday from a woman in Cincinnati; she was bringing a big family, two cars, they were going to drive in from Ohio on Friday,” Ms. St. Thomas said. “She wanted to know, what should she do? I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

In any shutdown, the government does not completely cease functioning, of course. Activities that are essential to national security, like military operations, can continue. Air traffic control and other public safety functions are exempt from shutdowns. Federal prisons still operate; law enforcement and criminal investigations can continue. Employees deemed essential to the functioning of government can come to work. (In ego-driven Washington, a federal shutdown forces high-powered workers to confront their self-worth. Many federal officials insisted on showing up in previous shutdowns, apparently unable to come to grips with idea they might not be considered vital.)

During the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, cleanup work on toxic waste sites was halted because contractors could not be paid and Environmental Protection Agency officials could not monitor cleanup work. Work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases was suspended, and the government took a break from going after deadbeat dads. Tens of thousands of passport and visa applications went unprocessed.

Yet in preparation for a possible shutdown of 2011, officials have discovered that the lessons of more than a decade ago are not always relevant. An entire federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, has come into existence since then. Most of its employees would continue working at airports, borders and seaports as usual, but many managers at headquarters would be temporarily out of work, a federal official said.

The government is much more heavily involved in the mortgage lending market today than in the mid-1990s, and officials are deeply concerned about the economic fallout should the Federal Housing Administration stop guaranteeing loans. Yet Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, though government-owned, would continue to operate.

Officials are also concerned about unemployment benefits, paid jointly by the federal government and the states. In 1995, with the jobless rate at 5.6 percent, states were able to draw on their trust funds to pay the federal portion. Today, many state funds are borrowing from the federal government.

And the growth of the Internet is another big change in the bureaucratic landscape, creating entirely new questions for policy makers to contend with.

“We realized that the world was a very different place in 1995 than now,” said one official familiar with the planning, who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly about it. “In 1995, you really didn’t have the question of: Are Web sites essential? Is e-mail essential? What do you do about people’s BlackBerrys? Is a Twitter feed an essential way of communicating? None of that existed. These are all legal questions to figure out.”

Much would depend on how long a shutdown lasts. (The longest previous episode ran three weeks.) At the federal courts, officials said they could continue operations for 10 days to two weeks, using money from fees paid by people who have filed civil suits. “After that, who knows?” said Karen E. Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

One key question is whether federal employees — the government work force includes more than 1.9 million civilian workers — would be compensated in the event of a shutdown. Many of those workers are deemed nonessential, but federal officials have not provided an estimate of the number.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, posted information on the agency’s Web site on Tuesday night saying that “federal agencies do not have the authority to pay their employees during a shutdown.” Congress, he said, would decide whether to pay employees who are furloughed. In the past, Congress often provided such pay, but the political climate now is different, and lawmakers might be less willing to do so.

Members of Congress and White House officials have broad discretion about whether to declare their employees essential. In previous shutdowns, most worked with skeleton crews.

The chairman of the Committee on House Administration, Representative Dan Lungren, Republican of California, sent detailed guidance on Tuesday to all House members and offices on what they could and could not do during a government shutdown.

A sample letter he provided warned: “Working in any way during a period of furlough, even as a volunteer, is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. To avoid violating this prohibition, we strongly recommend that you turn your BlackBerries off for the duration of the furlough.”

Around Washington on Tuesday, there was a sense of nervous anticipation — and some confusion. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said a shutdown would have a “very material” impact on his department, but he declined to elaborate. Administration officials said the Treasury would continue one indispensable role: holding regular auctions of federal debt, so the government could borrow more money from the public.

The Office of Management and Budget is not making its contingency plans public, a source of irritation to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents more than 600,000 federal workers. Its president, John Gage, said Tuesday that the union has sued the Obama administration under the Freedom of Information Act to compel the plans’ release.

“I think everybody needs to get a better idea of what a shutdown means — who is essential and who is not,” Mr. Gage said.

Horizontal Divider 7

Federal workers fed up with lack of information about possible shutdown

Like a marriage showing the strain of money troubles, the relationship between federal employees and the Obama administration is fraying as the possibility of a government shutdown grows stronger.

Generally, that relationship has been a good one, despite the two-year pay federal pay freeze pushed by President Obama. But the current source of friction is less about money than about information.

With a shutdown looming, Uncle Sam had acted, at least until late Tuesday, like he could see, hear and say no evil when it came to telling the public — and federal employees in particular — what closing the government would mean for them.

“It’s getting our goat a little bit,” John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said at a morning news conference.

Then at about 3 p.m., administration officials, including Jeff Zients, the government’s chief performance officer and a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, held a conference call with union leaders to provide some information.

Some questions were answered, but certainly not all. Perhaps many others could have been, had this process started earlier.

Zients and Berry, under pressure from labor leaders, told them that agencies will notify workers on Wednesday about the possibility of a shutdown and direct them to questions and answers posted at On Thursday and Friday, employees will be told whether they are essential — or “excepted from the furlough,” as the OPM puts it — and therefore would work during a shutdown. Non-essential workers who show up Monday would have four hours to close their operations before going home.

The OPM site includes much more information. The Q-and-A posted Tuesday evening does not tell employees whether they are essential, because that information will come from agency heads. But according to the OPM, excepted employees are those “performing work that, by law, may continue to be performed during a lapse in appropriations.”

Those who do work will be paid, but only after Congress and the president approve a new funding measure. For the employees who do not work, the OPM cannot say if they are out of luck or not:

Q: Will employees who are furloughed get paid?


A: Congress will determine whether “non-excepted” employees receive pay for the furlough period.

Health insurance benefits will continue.

The federal officials provided no estimate of the number of workers who might be furloughed, but Randy Erwin, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), estimated that “90 percent or more of the 110,000 federal employees we represent will be subject to furloughs.”

Because so many questions remain, the AFGE says it will press for answers through a lawsuit it filed in federal district court last week in an attempt to force the administration to come forth with basic information it should have provided before now.

Despite all the public debate, the charges flung back and forth daily between Republicans and Democrats, and “the gravity and notoriety of this matter, nearly all Federal Executive Branch agencies have failed or refused to release their contingency plans to either the public or to federal employee unions such as AFGE,” the suit says.

The union wants agency contingency plans and “a description or list of employees or positions that would be required to work without pay in the event of a shutdown.”

The AFGE filed a Freedom of Information Act request March 2 with the OMB seeking that information, then filed suit March 30 when it was not provided. The FOIA letter also requested information on the operations that would continue during a shutdown and the employees needed to keep them going.

The information employees need is important not just for their sake, but for the public’s as well. What offices would be open, what services would continue and what operations would carry on is information that everyone, not just federal workers, needs to know.

“It’s been very, very frustrating,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told reporters on Monday. Added NFFE President William R. Dougan: “I think it’s disrespectful to hold these folks in limbo until the last minute and expect them to be at the beck and call of these agencies.”

Elaine Mitchell is one of those folks. She is a Social Security employee and AFGE official in Falls Church who said she was considered nonessential during the shutdown of 1995 but essential during the shutdown of 1996. She was paid both times.

Mitchell doesn’t know what officials would call her this year or if she would be paid during a shutdown. She does know she is tired of politicians “playing with our lives.”

She can’t afford to go without pay, she said: “I’m a struggling middle-class worker. . . . I live paycheck to paycheck.”

Horizontal Divider 7

Bureau of Prisons director faces DUI, related charges

The soon-to-be retired director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons was arrested and charged with DUI and related counts in late February after an Anne Arundel County police officer spotted him driving erratically near his home in Annapolis, according to a police report.

Harley Lappin, 55, was pulled over Feb. 26 after an Anne Arundel police officer watched him nearly swerve into a police speed-enforcement trailer on Arundel on the Bay Road and a parked car on Headwater Road, according to a police report. Lappin’s eyes were bloodshot, his speech was slurred and his breath smelled of alcohol, according to the report. In field sobriety tests, he was unable to walk a straight line taking heel-to-toe steps, and he could not maintain his balance standing on one foot, the report said.

The incident was first reported by Main Justice.

Late last week, Lappin announced that he would retire as director of the Bureau of Prisons effective May 7. Traci Billingsley, a bureau spokeswoman, said Lappin had made the retirement decision “some months ago, long before the incident.” She said that Lappin informed his supervisors about the incident immediately after it happened and that he sent a message to his staff members Tuesday apologizing for “failing to lead by example.”

In a news release about Lappin’s retirement, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. praised the director’s efforts to “address prison overcrowding and expand prisoner development and rehabilitation programs.” Holder made no mention of the drunken-driving charges.

In a statement after news of the charges broke, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said, “While he shares Director Lappin’s regret for the incident that occurred, the Attorney General believes the Director has served with great integrity and professionalism over a long career at the Bureau of Prisons.”

Lappin is scheduled to appear in court June 16, court records show.

Horizontal Divider 7

Government revoking pay raises, top career officials claim

This story has been updated.

Top career officials are being asked to give up their pay raises in a move some suspect is part of President Obama's two-year governmentwide pay freeze.

"We've heard from members that it's happening," said Bill Bransford, general counsel at the Senior Executives Association. "We have not officially heard from anyone and don't know the specific facts."

Federal News Radio reported Friday morning that as of Sunday, the government is revoking the December 2010 performance-based pay raises of hundreds of senior executives. The story said the Energy Department had informed its senior executives of the move at the direction of the Office of Personnel Management. Other agencies are expected to do the same, the report added.

But an Energy official said the department was "still reviewing whether it will ask senior executives to give back money received as part of the pay increase." The official said OPM directed Energy on March 18 to take action to "roll back the pay adjustments."

A senior administration official said OPM made the request because the law generally prohibits more than one pay raise in any 12-month period for senior executives. The targeted executives' salaries increased in January 2010 and then again in December. "It was not a result of the pay freeze," the official said, referring to OPM's request, adding that there was no formal memo from OPM but rather "discussions and deliberations over the phone."

OPM did not respond to messages from Government Executive asking for comment.

"I don't know if I can remember anything happening like this ever before," Bransford said. "It seems unusual."

Using the same argument regarding the law on pay changes to senior executives' salaries, he questioned the legality of the move to take back the pay raises, in particular those given in December 2010, before the pay freeze officially took effect in January. Under Title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations, with a few exceptions, agencies can adjust (increase or decrease) a senior executive's basic pay only once during a 12-month period.

There are other restrictions on decreasing senior-level pay. Agencies can reduce a senior executive's rate of basic pay "by not more than 10 percent for performance or disciplinary reasons," subject to other restrictions included in the code. An agency can reduce the basic pay without a senior executive's consent only as a result of poor performance or misconduct, and must provide written notice of such a move at least 15 days before the reduction takes effect. Senior executives can choose to obtain a lawyer to dispute the matter, and request specific reasons for the pay reduction and reconsideration by the head of the agency. SESers cannot formally appeal the decision, however.

There are approximately 7,000 SES members across government who earn between $119,554 and $179,700 annually.

Horizontal Divider 7

Shutdown Madness Coming To A Head

With no cosmetic fixes left, it will require painful compromises on either side to avoid government shutdown.

By Major Garrett
The 2011 budget stalemate is about to enter a new and politically perilous stage. While a shutdown of some duration isn't certain, time is running out, positions are hardening and the recent bipartisan willingness to indulge in face-saving gestures is entirely gone.

A week of negotiations involving the White House, Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have failed to narrow differences in spending cuts and policy differences. House Republicans still stand by $51 billion in cuts from the 2010 budget and demand that serve as the beginning point for negotiations — meaning anything less than it in terms of cuts or policy riders represents a GOP

The White House and Senate Democrats oppose using the full GOP continuing resolution (CR) as a benchmark because it can't pass the Senate and, even if it did, would die under a veto that House Republicans couldn't override (they needed House Democratic votes, after all, to pass the last three-week stop-gap bill).

It's hard to know, precisely, the magnitude of spending cuts coming from Democrats. White House and Senate Democrats say they have offered up to $20 billion, while Republicans say all they've offered is about $7 billion in cuts (It may be a difference in policy accounting or GOP low-balling the Democrats). In either case, House Republicans consider
both numbers insufficient.

The ill-will boiled to the surface on Friday, as House Republicans issued coordinated statements seeking to portray Democrats as unwilling to cut spending and lacking a serious plan to resolve the impasse.

"Washington Democrats continue to downplay the severity of their budget mess," Boehner said in a statement, referring to the Democrats' inability to pass a budget in the 111th Congress. "We weren’t sent here to negotiate with ourselves. Many questions remain, starting with: when it comes to cutting spending and keeping the government running, where are Washington Democrats? If they have a plan, what is it?"

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy amplified Boehner, alleging Democrats are spoiling for a shutdown showdown.

"It’s irresponsible for Democrats on the Hill and in the White House to continue pushing for the status quo of more spending while playing political games intended to shut down the government," McCarthy said in a statement.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded, also in a statement, that Boehner is a hostage to Tea Party-backed House Republicans who are unwilling to compromise.

“The House Republican leadership is back to agonizing over whether to give in to right-wing demands that they abandon any compromise on their extreme cuts," Schumer said. "The Speaker knows that when it comes to avoiding a shutdown, his problem is with the Tea Party, not Democrats. Instead of lashing out at Democrats in a kneejerk way, we hope House Republicans will finally stand up to the Tea Party and resume the negotiations that had seemed so full of promise.”

Senior House GOP aides sniffed that Schumer "is not directly involved in the CR negotiations" and that all questions about the actual state of budget negotiations should be referred to Reid. It's never a good sign when staff fights break out over who is or isn't in a room where negotiations are stalled or breaking down. Reid did not issue a statement characterizing the talks.

Amidst all the posturing, pressure is building on Boehner to press for policy riders passed during original consideration of the full continuing resolution but left out of the stop-gap bills accepted by Senate Democrats and the White House. House Republicans know they won't be able to use these budget negotiations to defund the 2010 health care law or block creation of new financial regulatory reform bureaucracies. But rank-and-file House Republicans want some policy victories and are looking at comparatively easy ones to be included in
the final package — among them blocking movement of suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. for trial or tightening access to abortion in the District of Columbia.

But Senate Democrats and the White House are reluctant to move on House GOP policy riders and want to keep the eventual budget deal as "clean" (meaning devoid of policy riders) as possible.

If no deal is struck by Thursday, a shutdown or another CR is the only way out. House Republicans will not consider a bill that resolves the 2011 budget on an expedited basis — meaning it will require being available for three days before House action. A short-term measure could keep negotiations alive but no moves have been taken to write one and even if they were, House Republican say, they would have to include some policy riders — adding another layer of uncertainty.

There is less than one week to go and the differences on dollars and policy appear as pronounced as ever. And if both sides aren't moving a bill by April Fool's day, well ... the voters will decide who the budget fools really are.

Horizontal Divider 7

Clinton not interested in second term at State or presidential run

Secretary of State of Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday she is not interested in serving a second term as secretary of state, nor as secretary of defense, nor does she plan to run for the presidency again.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, was direct in ruling out all the positions. 

Blitzer: If the president is reelected, do you want to serve a second term as secretary of state?

Clinton: No

Blitzer: Would you like to serve as secretary of defense?

Clinton: No

Blitzer: Would you like to be vice president of the United States?

Clinton: No

Blitzer: Would you like to be president of the United States?

Clinton: No

Blitzer: Why not?

Clinton: Because I have the best job I could ever have. This is a moment in history where it is almost hard to catch your breath. There are both the tragedies and disasters that we have seen from Haiti to Japan and there are the extraordinary opportunities and challenges that we see right here in Egypt and in the rest of the region. So I want to be part of helping to represent the United States at this critical moment in time, to do everything I can in support of the president and our government and the people of our country to stand for our values and our ideals, to stand up for our security - which has to remain first and foremost in my mind - and to advance America's interests. And there isn't anything that I can imagine doing after this that would be as demanding, as challenging, or rewarding.

Blitzer: President of the United States?

Clinton: You know, I had a wonderful experience running and I am very proud of the support I had and very grateful for the opportunity, but I'm going to be, you know, moving on.

Blitzer: I asked my viewers and followers on Twitter to send questions and a lot of them said, "Ask her if she'll run in 2016 for the presidency." A lot of folks would like to you to do that.

Clinton: Well that's very kind, but I am doing what I want to do right now and I have no intention or any idea even of running again. I'm going to do the best I can at this job for the next two years.

Horizontal Divider 7

House GOP, White House ramp up talks on budget deal

Talks between the House Republicans and administration are accelerating as both sides push for a deal in the next two weeks to avert a government shutdown.

The negotiations are under way on several levels. Conversations between Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew and House Appropriations Republican staff have begun. Democratic aides said those talks are an offshoot of existing negotiations involving leadership staff from both chambers that helped produce a deal last week on a three-week continuing resolution. Talks between House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and President Obama or a senior designee are set to begin as soon as this week, a senior GOP source said.

The efforts come with the Senate likely to pass the three-week continuing resolution including about $6 billion in spending cuts on Thursday, according to leadership aides. The increased pace reflects the belief at the White House and among congressional eaders that a deal must be struck in March to give both chambers time to act on a negotiated bill before the two-week Easter recess. If the three-week CR is passed by the Senate, as expected, Congress will have until April 8 to reach a compromise.

The senior GOP source said the deal will be cut by Boehner and Obama, written by the House Appropriations Republicans, and effectively presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to Senate Democrats, who would be expected to swallow it.  

Democratic leadership aides say they are confident that Lew will not give House Republicans their preferred level of cuts. Lew's "interests pretty much align with ours," said an aide, who insisted that a deal between the White House and Boehner would not resemble last year's tax deal, which the White House cut with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with limited Democratic input.

While Senate Democrats may grumble at being sidelined, Republicans argue that they have made themselves irrelevant. And the chance to hand the ball to the administration may be privately welcomed by many Senate Democrats who have been clamoring for a stepped-up White House role in talks and who are struggling to unite behind any clear stance on what level of spending cuts they will accept.

House Republicans acknowledge that Tuesday's vote on the three-week CR with 54 Republicans in opposition, gives House Democrats a larger role.

Republicans are optimistic about chances for agreement with Lew, who has worked with many House appropriators and won public praise from key players such as Appropriations Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.

"Jack Lew and I go back a long way, so I really have high respect for him," Rogers said at a National Journal event on Wednesday. "He is a professional. He understands what each party has to contend with. So I am very hopeful we'll get it done."

A challenge will be finding agreement on an overall number for cuts. Republicans in both chambers are committed to meeting something close to the overall number of about $60 billion in cuts included in the seven-month continuing resolution the House passed last month, which the Senate rejected. Republican sources said Lew has indicated he will not agree on a large number for cuts without clarity on the implications to federal programs. Lew wants the policy to drive the numbers, the opposite of the GOP approach.

Asked on Wednesday if he has a number in mind, Rogers said he "was always told not to show your cards until [you are ready] to lay them down."

Rogers noted that the level of cuts, their effect on specific programs, and policy riders such as stripping funds from Planned Parenthood "are all part of the conversations we are having."

He added that House Republican leaders "will make the big decisions... and we will be a part of that conversation."

Rogers noted that the policy riders could also be included in the fiscal 2012 appropriations bills, a signal that they may not have to be included in a final deal. Democrats have argued they are nonstarters.

While President Obama has urged no cuts to funding for education, infrastructure, and other programs he believes will pay off in time, Rogers said that the pain must be shared across the discretionary budget, and that he expects government programs within his purview to remain under scrutiny and on the chopping block until deficits can be brought under control.

Horizontal Divider 7

Labor leaders demand answers on agency shutdown plans

Administration officials are keeping federal employees in the dark over furlough policies, leaving workers unsure whether they would have to work during a shutdown and, if so, if they would be paid, members of the government's council on labor-management relations said on Wednesday.

Agencies are required by the Office of Management and Budget to develop strategies for a government hiatus and include information such as the time it will take to stop operations and the number of essential employees they plan to retain. For the most part, however, officials have not identified specific personnel policies that would be in place during a shutdown.

"We're interested in which employees are going to continue to work," William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said during the meeting. "We've been stonewalled, and I'm wondering what the deal is."

The personnel decisions have collective bargaining implications, Dougan said, "in terms of bargaining on adverse impacts and procedures around furloughs."

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley expressed concern about the information gap between agency officials and labor. Managers are trying to make sure critical operations continue, but employees don't know how they will be designated, she said, adding workers are wondering whether they should go out and find other jobs.

"Tell them something," she said. "The silence is deafening."

According to Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director of management and council co-chairman, agency plans are not yet final, though it is coordinating with officials to ensure consistency. The process involves legal concerns not subject to union input, and labor would not be involved until a shutdown occurred and plans were implemented, he said.

"We have every reason to believe this is not going to happen," Zients said. "If a shutdown becomes imminent, we'll advise and clearly communicate at that point."

Officials said they also have yet to determine whether essential employees will be reimbursed for the hours they are required to work during a shutdown, noting pay is not guaranteed at this point.

Also at the meeting, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, announced that the Chief Human Capital Officers Council last week formed a new working group focused on improving government's performance management system. He added the labor-management council could create a separate group to work with CHCOs to improve employee accountability and reward high performers. The discussion will not include pay for performance, he noted.

Union heads expressed concern that talks composed solely of agency managers could create conflicts and suggested labor leaders also participate directly as members of the new group.

"I think it will be ships passing in the night," said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "I don't have a lot of confidence that our point of view is going to make it through there."

During a speech at the Interagency Resource Management Conference on Wednesday, Berry said he wants to improve the government's personnel evaluation system by developing more specific performance standards and offering employees more frequent feedback.

The council's next meeting will be held on May 18. Members agreed to cancel the April session to allow more time to review agencies' baseline metrics for evaluating labor-management forums and bargaining pilot projects.

Horizontal Divider 7

Reduced COLA Payments for Federal and Military Retirees in Your Future?

By Ralph Smith
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

You can have daily headlines from delivered right to your desktop each business morning. The service is free and you don't get junk e-mail as the price of your subscription. Just visit our newsletter page to sign up!

How can Congress cut the federal deficit by reducing federal spending?

The deficit commission came up with a number of recommendations which we have outlined in previous articles. And, while President Obama indicated at the time the commission was formed that he would be standing with the members of the commission when their findings were
announced, his enthusiasm for the recommendations has been somewhere between tepid and non-existent. (See Deficit Commission Recommends Freezing Federal Salaries, Changing Retirement Calculations and Commission Proposes "High-Three" to "High-Five" for Retirement, Pay Freeze and Changes to FEHB for Federal Employees)

But that does not mean that the recommendations have gone away or that other options are not going to be considered. Some of these options will impact the federal workforce and, quite possibly, the future retirement income of federal employees and other Americans as well.

Here is one example of a proposal that has been written by the
Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

One section of this report is entitled: "Base Cost-of-Living
Adjustments for Federal Civilian and Military Pensions and Veterans’ Benefits on an Alternative Measure of Inflation."

It will not surprise many readers to learn that the gist of this
proposal is how to reduce the COLA adjustments and require less future spending increases by the federal government.

Cost of Retirement Benefits

"In 2010, the federal government paid $69 billion in pension benefits to 2.5 million civilian retirees and their survivors, as well as $51 billion to 2.2 million military retirees and their
survivors...Pensions paid under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) are subject to annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) that provide complete protection against increases in the CPI-W. Pensions paid under the newer Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) are fully protected only when that increase is less than 2 percent per

So, obviously, the federal government is spending a great deal of money each year on retirement payments in various forms. How can this amount of spending be reduced?

How to Save Money? Change The Formula

One way is to change the formula for paying future cost of living increases. The chained CPU (CPI-U) would, on average, grow 0.25 percent less than the existing formula for paying inflation increases.

0.25% less does not sound like a lot of money and, as a practical matter, it may not be a lot for many people. It would save the government a few billion dollars though.  Changing how the COLA is calculated would decrease mandatory government outlays by about $6 billion between 2012 and 2016 and by $24 billion from 2012 through 2021.

What does this mean in practical terms for those that receive these benefits? Here are the results:

On average, a federal employee retiring under the CSRS system would receive about $3,900 less over 10 years; a FERS annuitant would receive about $1,000 less. The average military retiree would receive roughly $3,000 less over 10 years, veterans’ disability compensation would be about $1,500 less, and veterans’ pensions would be about $1,200 less.

The Long-Term Impact

There are disadvantages to the proposal, of course. We have previously explained how the CPI-E would provide a larger benefit to federal employee retirees by counting more heavily the expenses actually borne by those who are retired and putting less emphasis on expenses not as likely to impact an older person or couple. The Congressional Budget Office is aware of this other option and that this other option would
increase future government spending if it were to be enacted. (See Your 2010 COLA: Why Your Costs May Be Up But Your Income Goes Down)

Here is the downside to using the CPI-U as explained by the CBO:

            "[T]he benefits received by retirees may decline over time in real terms under current law, and using the chained CPI-U would accentuate that decline. CSRS annuitants would be particularly affected because they are most dependent on their pensions: CSRS annuitants typically receive larger pensions than FERS annuitants do, but CSRS annuitants did not receive the matching contributions to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts for which FERS annuitants were eligible."

The report is long. For those who care to read it, here it is.

There are other proposal contained within it that would impact all Americans. With the spiraling federal debt, and the unwillingness of previous elected officials to be willing to address the issue, resolving the debt problem is undoubtedly going to impact all of us in some way.

There is no certainty that this proposal to reduce future COLA
payments will be enacted. But, keep in mind, it is likely that changes will be made to federal spending sooner or later and some of these spending initiatives are very likely to impact the federal workforce as well as those who do not work for the government sector.

With the under-employment rate at almost 19% for the American workforce, a gradual acceptance of the high unemployment more common in European countries than in the United States, and the growing dependence on government by many Americans that requires more government spending, it is unlikely that changes can be avoided in the federal budget. The tough political questions will be deciding where the cuts will be made, who will be impacted by the cuts, or whether those in leadership positions will continue to ignore the problem while it continues to grow.

Horizontal Divider 7

Battle royal over federal worker pay

By Joe Davidson

All that Wednesday's House hearing on federal pay needed to be complete was an announcer with a booming voice asking the packed room, "Are you ready to rumble?"

Instead, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, called the session to order with the familiar bang of the gavel.

But it didn't take long for things to get hot.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, perhaps gearing up for a run at the Senate seat now occupied by fellow Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch, vigorously challenged Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on savings expected to be generated by the two-year federal pay freeze - a freeze Republicans might seek to strengthen by including certain increases that are now exempt.

Dispensing with the polite approach to witnesses he displayed as a freshman last year, Chaffetz sharply insisted the freeze would not save money because employees can still get bonuses, awards and "step" increases based largely on longevity. Later, James Sherk, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, snidely called the step increases "social promotion for adults."

Like a tag team in a pro-wrestling match, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) took over Chaffetz's line of pointed questions and assertions after a break for a vote on the House floor.

"The truth is, there will be pay increases throughout this [freeze] process," said Issa, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Berry pointed out that awards amount to less than 2 percent of payroll and that even without including awards and step increases, the freeze will save $28 billion over five years.

"The pay freeze for two years is a real sacrifice," Berry said.

But not enough for Republicans.

"I think we have to correct the pay freeze issue," Ross said after the hearing.

He expects legislation will be introduced to include the step or "within grade" increases in the freeze. Another option that he said would be considered is basing retirement income on the top five years of federal pay instead of the top three.

To the consternation of Democrats, Ross, showing no hesitancy in his rookie season on Capitol Hill, had posters placed behind the dais that set the sometimes-contentious tone of the hearing. One said federal employment had increased by 157,000 between December 2008 and December 2010 while private sector jobs dropped by 8.8 million.

"A high school farce . . . the facts be damned," was Rep. Gerald E. Connolly's (D-Va.) characterization of the hearing during a break in the action.

Berry noted that the federal workforce, as a percentage of the nation's population, is "virtually as small today as it has been in the modern era. In 1953, there was one federal worker for every 78 residents," Berry said. "In 2009, it was one for every 147."

Although the pay freeze captured the conversation during the first part of the hearing, that was not advertised as its primary focus.

The question that the hearing was called to consider: "Are federal workers underpaid?"

Berry and Democrats defended federal pay, just as the Republicans did not.

Using data that Democrats certainly did not accept, Ross said federal employee compensation is "nearly four times more than the average private sector worker."

Berry's rebuttal: "Raw comparisons of average pay between federal and private sector employees mask important differences in the skill levels, complexity of work, scope of responsibility, size of organization, location, experience level and special requirements, as well as exposure to personal danger."

"Federal cooks may seem overpaid," Berry added, but not when they "supervise inmates in a clearly dangerous environment." A third of federal cooks work in prisons, he said.

Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, didn't care for Berry's put-down of studies that overlook differences in federal and private sector workers. Biggs said his study, done with Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation, did control for various factors.

"When salaries, benefits and job security are properly valued, the total federal compensation package is worth upwards of 39 percent more than is paid to similar private sector workers," he said.

Job security is a peculiar thing to throw in that mix. Employers benefit as much as workers from a stable workforce, one that includes experienced staffers who know the organization's culture and possess institutional memory.

Biggs dumped on government figures indicating that federal jobs pay about 24 percent less, on average, than those in the private sector.

But Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, defended the government's method while taking a potshot at Biggs and his confederates.

"The witnesses who will claim today that federal employees are overpaid have clear ideological views that I believe should raise serious questions about the reliability of their findings," Kelley said in her statement.

AEI and Heritage, she said, "are putting forth self-serving, self-created data, while we are referring to data from an independent, nonpartisan, credible source."

Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said during his testimony that the real question isn't whether federal employees are under- or overpaid but how the government can move to a more flexible and market-sensitive system.

"At the end of the day, the federal pay system should allow the federal government to attract, motivate and retain highly qualified workers to carry out the many missions of the federal government," Stier said. "And it should do it as cost-effectively as possible."

Everyone agrees with that. But agreement on what that system looks like is hard to reach.

Horizontal Divider 7

Pay is no guarantee for furloughed employees

If Congress and the Obama administration fail to reach an agreement on the continuing resolution by March 4 and the government shuts down, then federal employees who are furloughed might not be compensated for the loss in pay.

The last time the government shut down in 1995 and 1996, for 27 days at an overall cost of $1.4 billion, furloughed federal employees were paid retroactively for the time they were off the job. But it's up to Congress to decide whether to reimburse employees for the time lost, and lawmakers might not be disposed to do so during the current fiscal climate.

"They can always decide they are not going to do it," said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, and a federal employee at the Merit Systems Protection Board during the mid-1990s shutdown. Lawmakers still are on the federal payroll during a shutdown; other employees not subject to furlough include the president, presidential appointees, certain legislative branch staff and "essential" federal workers. Most essential employees perform jobs in defense, health care or other areas of national security and/or emergency-related fields, and while they are paid, their paychecks could be delayed during a hiatus.

"Overall, nothing good happens to the [federal] employee during a shutdown unless you are deemed essential," Palguta said. "Shutdowns are a bad way to run government, obviously." The decision to pay employees retroactively also affects their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. If workers are compensated for the loss in pay, then their designated contribution and the matching amount from the government goes through as if the furlough didn't happen, according to Tom Trabucco, director of external affairs for the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. "When the hiatus was over and funds began flowing again, amounts which each employee had elected to defer into the TSP simply flowed from their pay into their accounts based on their standing contribution elections," he said, referring to the 1995 shutdown. But if lawmakers choose not to reimburse feds, then TSP accounts will take a hit for that period of time. The board itself remains open for business in the event of a furlough, since it is not funded through federal appropriations. For furloughed employees who live paycheck to paycheck, there is little recourse, Palguta said. "There is nothing officially that the government can provide," he noted. Depending on how long the furlough lasted, some employees would be able to apply for unemployment compensation, and there are a few nonprofits groups that could provide assistance, such as the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund, a charity that is part of the Combined Federal Campaign.

Agencies are required through Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11 to develop plans for a government hiatus, and include information such as the time it will take to complete the shutdown and the number of essential employees they plan to retain. OMB, the Justice Department and the Office of Personnel Management are supposed to provide agencies with guidance; agencies in turn must inform employees of an impending shutdown and their specific status in advance. OMB and OPM have been reluctant to discuss publicly the possibility of a shutdown and furloughs, but Palguta said he believes there is planning happening behind the scenes. "I can tell you at the agency level that the chief human capital officers are at least dusting off the playbook," he said. "You don't wait until you get the word."

In fact, Social Security Administrator Michael Astrue has acknowledged his agency is preparing for a potential shutdown. Defining who is essential and who isn't often becomes the central question for agencies -- and the one that most affects who receives a paycheck.

During a December 1995 review of the previous month's government shutdown, then-Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., said a lack of coordination among agencies created confusion and resulted in a patchwork of operations: "Agencies were left to their own devices, some making decisions to keep employees working if they were paid out of multiyear or no year appropriations, some retaining only those employees involved in protecting life or property. Some departments shutting down almost completely, some remaining fully staffed."

Horizontal Divider 7

House GOP Working on CR to Avert Shutdown, Deflect Blame

A red light at the entrance to the plaza in front of the Capitol. The federal government will come to a stop on March 4 if Congress doesn't work out a funding extension

House Republicans are drafting a two-week continuing resolution to keep the government operating after the current CR expires on March 4 and will file the bill on Friday, National Journal has learned.

The measure will contain about $4 billion in spending cuts and will merge cuts approved last week by the House and several taken from President Obama’s list of program terminations and savings. Three senior House GOP aides said the strategy is designed to avert a government shutdown and limit the ability of Senate Democrats and the White House to portray Republicans as unreasonable or inflexible.

"We will put together a bill that cuts spending about $4 billion for two weeks when the deficit is $1.5 trillion this year," a source said. "And the question will be this: Will Senate Democrats cut any spending at all?"

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has already begun drafting the CR, though a final determination on the precise amount of spending cuts and which programs will be targeted has not been made, several House GOP sources said. Republicans plan to vote on the measure next Tuesday or Wednesday.

The CR would extend government financing for two weeks after Obama signed the bill and its cuts would be prorated to reflect the $100 billion in cuts approved in last week’s CR. In other words, the $4 billion in savings would be roughly equal to the cuts the CR called for if carried out for just two weeks.

House GOP leaders held a conference call with freshmen GOP members on Wednesday to lay out the strategy. More than half of the 87-member class participated in a call with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; and House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. The call gave more detail to an outline of the strategy GOP leaders gave the freshmen class before it left Washington for this week’s recess.

The GOP aides said the thrust of the trimmed-down CR is to avoid a government shutdown and make the GOP spending cuts as hard as possible for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House to ignore or criticize. "What we will end up saying is we have passed two bills to prevent a shutdown and then we will ask the Senate: ‘How many bills have you passed to prevent a shutdown?’ " an aide said.

Senate Democrats dismissed the idea that the House proposal represented any kind of concession.

"The Republicans’ so-called compromise is nothing more than the same extreme package the House already handed the Senate, just with a different bow," said Jon Summers, Reid’s communications director. "This isn’t a compromise; it’s a hardening of their original position. This bill would simply be a two-week version of the reckless measure the House passed last weekend. It would impose the same spending levels in the short term as their initial proposal does in the long term, and it isn’t going to fool anyone. Both proposals are non-starters in the Senate."

The GOP freshmen, according to senior House GOP aides, backed the approach, even though it amounts to a retreat from the $61 billion in cuts from enacted fiscal 2010 spending levels (and $100 billion from Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal that the previous Congress ignored). The House approved the $100 billion in cuts after the freshmen rejected the GOP-leadership-backed plan to cut $32 billion from fiscal 2010 spending levels.

According to several GOP sources, the freshmen and many senior conservatives are girding for an eventual retreat from the bigger CR because they know GOP leaders are fearful of the political consequences of a government shutdown and want to wage the spending-cut battle over many cycles—instead of betting all their chips on this first showdown with Reid and Obama.

Boehner and Cantor have pleaded with the freshmen to take the long view of the budget war and not risk a political backlash over the CR dispute. GOP leaders have instead argued to win as many spending cuts as they can during the CR debate and follow up with more when Congress must raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling later this spring and find still more when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bills are written.

This approach reflects Boehner’s deep-seated belief that the 1995 Gingrich-led Congress risked everything in its shutdown confrontation with President Bill Clinton, and in the aftermath Republicans not only lacked the stomach to fight for more spending cuts, they veered in the opposite direction and targeted federal spending to vulnerable districts to protect the GOP majority.

"We have a totally different mind set and approach than 1995," said a senior House GOP source. "We don’t want to shut the government down. But we do want to cut spending. And we will. And the CR will do that one way or the other."

Horizontal Divider 7

Coleman inmate feared for life before he was slain, family says

Manuel Jimenez was less than six months from freedom when he was killed in the recreation yard of the nation's largest federal prison.

Jimenez, 44, was serving time for a probation violation and had been counting the days until he was reunited with his wife to renew their vows and remake their lives after his release from Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando.

"We were looking forward to a lot — a second chance, that is what he said," Jimenez's widow, Camille Day-Jimenez, recently said from her Wyoming home.

Now, about two months after the attack, his grieving family remains in limbo while waiting for officials to say what happened to the father of five who become the latest victim of violence at the roughly 7,000-inmate prison.

A week after Jimenez was slain, another inmate was killed in an unrelated attack: a fight with a fellow inmate.

Two others have been killed since 2005 at the prison, also plagued by recreation-yard brawls, guard misconduct and stabbings.

Prison officials wouldn't comment about ongoing homicide investigations or security measures. But they say every incident is reviewed and changes are made to prevent violence.

Federal prisons packed

Criminal-justice experts say it's difficult to gauge whether Coleman's troubles are worse than in other federal prisons because such comparable statistics aren't readily available.

Some speculate the violence is linked to rising prison populations. The section of the prison where Jimenez died was designed to hold 960 inmates. It currently houses 1,572, said prison spokesman Gary Miller.

"However, this is not uncommon for penitentiaries across the [Bureau of Prisons] who, on average, are 50 percent over rated capacity," he said.

Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmund Ross said overpopulation, staff recruitment and retention are persistent problems at the agency's 115 facilities.

But he wouldn't comment when asked whether those issues contributed to Coleman's violence. However, a union representative, Jose Rojas, said staffing cuts have affected emergency response, sparking tensions inside Coleman.

Rojas, president of the Coleman chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, said only three out of seven security towers were manned on the compound the night Jimenez was killed.

"That's unfortunate because they [towers] used to be our eyes and ears to alert guys on the ground more quickly to something happening," Rojas said, a teacher and former correctional officer at the prison. "These guys are dangerous criminals, and you can't watch them without sufficient staff."

Miller, the prison spokesman, acknowledged that some towers were not occupied but said that was part of a larger change involving all federal prisons to reassign tower guards to other positions. Additional electric fences were installed as part of that change.

Jimenez in Coleman

Jimenez ended up in Coleman after a lifetime of troubles his family traced to the guilt of having killed a woman in a traffic crash when he drove drunk at 16 — his first offense.

In 2003, he was charged with a federal crime after he threw a rock and hit a tribal officer in the head at a Wyoming Indian reservation where he lived.

He was sentenced to 71 months but violated his probation twice — for drinking and fighting — lengthening his stay in the federal-prison system. The court ordered Jimenez to a halfway house for several months and later transferred him to Coleman's high-security penitentiary in August.

A few days before he was killed, Jimenez told his wife in a phone call that guards broke up a fight after he was surrounded by a group of inmates who threatened him.

On Dec. 18, Jimenez was attacked in the prison's recreation yard at about 6:45 p.m., officials said. He was pronounced dead at 8:17 p.m. at a local hospital.

Jimenez's wife is convinced her husband was targeted because other prisoners knew he would be released soon.

"I knew as soon as I heard it wasn't a natural death," Camille Day-Jimenez said. "The last couple of weeks, [Jimenez would say]: 'If I live, I will tell the story.' "

Manuel Jimenez's mother, Odilia Jimenez of Alice, Texas, blames the prison for her son's death, saying it neglected to protect him. He was buried near her home, and she visits his grave every day the weather cooperates.

"It's so unreal, you know — you think they are supposed to be safe," Odilia said. "If nobody says anything, it's going to continue."

Horizontal Divider 7

Budget Crunch Forces A New Approach To Prisons


Budget problems are forcing states and the federal government to rethink their approach to prisons. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and the cost is getting unbearable.

Even conservatives who describe themselves as tough on crime are starting to call for the release of some inmates. That's in part because the numbers are speaking louder than ever.

States spend about $50 billion a year to house prisoners, and experts say incarceration is the fastest-growing expense in state budgets, except for Medicaid.

Adam Gelb, who studies public safety at the Pew Center on the States, says it's time to change direction, and he has some numbers to make his case.

"It costs 23 times as much to have somebody behind the walls as it does in the community, and I think that disparity is what's becoming compelling," Gelb told a House appropriations panel last week.

Overhauling Corrections

Researchers have been collecting evidence for years about how to cut prison costs and reduce crime rates. James H. Burch II at the U.S. Justice Department says politicians are finally starting to listen.

"The economic situation that we're in is certainly nothing to celebrate," Burch says in an interview. "But at the same time, it has served as an effective catalyst to get people to look at the facts and look at the data and to be more reasonable about the decisions that we're making."

Those decisions are reflected in President Obama's 2012 budget. It includes a plan to save $41 million by releasing well-behaved inmates.

Recently, Burch says, about a dozen states have reached out to the federal government for advice on how to overhaul their corrections policies.

Experts say the key is to evaluate each prisoner and the risk he poses to the community, just like an insurance company would before writing a policy to cover someone's house or car.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) says nonviolent criminals — people locked up on drug charges or for writing bad checks — may do much better out in the world than in a cell next to more dangerous inmates.

"You're finding people ... who have been sent into prison for a nonviolent crime who come out very, very violent," Wolf says. "Have you been in the prisons? I mean, they are very, very violent. So you've actually been counterproductive in what you're trying to do."

A Changing Atmosphere

Wolf is not the only prominent conservative to speak out about prisons. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist belong to a new group called Right on Crime. The organization wants to see low-level criminals released, with more oversight in their local communities and more focus on programs cut down on repeat offenders.

Those are ideas that they say have worked and saved money in such places as Hawaii and Texas.

Pat Nolan has been working on those issues for 14 years. He says he's picking up a change in the atmosphere.

"All these conservatives now are saying: 'Gee, we need to rethink this huge spending on crime. We need to hold the bureaucracy accountable for results. We need to reserve prison space for people who are truly dangerous,' " Nolan says. "It's beginning to change the whole political equation on crime."

Current and former prosecutors say they aren't opposed to the idea of corrections reforms. "It just makes sense," says Jim Brady, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan during the Carter administration.

"The cost of the current penal system has just gotten to be too expensive," said Brady, who now practices law at the Dykema law firm. "They're looking at alternative methods in terms of rehabilitation, deterrence and the other factors that you consider in sentencing."

A Warning

Then there's Jim Reams, the Rockingham County, N.H., attorney and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

Reams said that his state dived head first into corrections reforms about six months ago. But he's got a warning: Those reforms haven't worked out quite as the activists promised.

"The problems in New Hampshire have to do with the fact that they didn't fund any system for the maintenance and the monitoring of the people in the community," Reams said. "They just started dumping them out with the predictable results."

That means more crime, said Jim Pasco of the national legislative office of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"If something needs to be done, it needs to be done at the front end, before crimes are committed," Pasco said. "This is a sociological, a societal problem."

Pasco said he's worried about proposals to cut police forces and release more criminals to save money.

"You put together reduced police strength on the street and more potentially violent criminals out there and it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

Pasco said his members are fanning out on Capitol Hill this week, to share their concerns with lawmakers.

Horizontal Divider 7

Chances up for federal shutdown

The chances of a government shutdown are on the rise.

With less than three weeks to strike a deal before government funding for the year is scheduled to expire, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are moving in opposite directions.  

Lawmakers from both parties stress they want to avoid a rerun of the stalemate that led to a shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996. But the rhetoric on spending has escalated, and Democratic and GOP officials are already prepping for the blame game.

Positions have hardened after a revolt last week by House conservatives, who forced GOP leaders to nearly double their proposed spending cuts for 2011.

 If the cuts pass the House, Senate Democrats say they are dead on arrival in the upper chamber. 

 “I think the direction of last week is the wrong direction and puts us closer on the path to a shutdown,” said William Hoagland, a former senior aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).  

Hoagland, who also served as staff director under former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), hopes that Senate deliberations will defuse a potential crisis.   

“That’s why we have a Senate and a process we’ll go through, and cooler minds will prevail at some point and end up with a solution that will not necessitate a shutdown,” he said.

Government funding is due to run out on March 4, giving Democratic and GOP leaders little time to work out a compromise.  

Scott Lilly, who formerly served as the Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said a government shutdown looks “more likely.”

“Given the date now, there’s no question we’ll need a short-term [continuing resolution (CR)],” he said. “That’s the move that I think will be very difficult and raises the prospect of a shutdown.”

House Republicans are leaving open the possibility of a CR, which would serve as a stopgap measure until a bipartisan deal is struck. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, said Tuesday that Republicans would approve a short-term funding measure to provide more time for budget talks if there is an impasse.

But some on the right oppose passing a CR because it keeps spending at current levels.

For House GOP leaders, sending a CR to President Obama’s desk would require even steeper cuts to make up for the short-term extension if they stick with their campaign pledge to cut $100 billion “in the first year alone.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill that Republican leaders should stare Obama down. 

“If [Republican] members of the House are sending signals that we are afraid of the president shutting down the government, then the president will get everything he’s willing to fight for,” he said.

Democrats say they are open to cuts to current spending levels, though some believe they will repeatedly reject the House GOP’s plan and seek to wait out Republicans by calling for a series of CRs.

During a teleconference last week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “Time is wasting while House Republicans argue among themselves about how extreme a proposal to send to the Senate. We are willing to meet the Republicans in the middle on spending, but they keep lurching to the right.

“And this infighting is causing delays that will take these negotiations right up to the deadline and risk a government shutdown. And that seems to be exactly what many Republicans want.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fired back at Schumer, saying the only ones talking about a shutdown are Democrats. 

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday said, “Any time that we propose a spending cut, it seems that Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Harry Reid and others scream, ‘Shutdown.’”

Boehner and McConnell have declined to rule out the possibility of a government shutdown in recent television interviews. Doing so would hurt the GOP’s leverage with the White House. Both have emphasized their intent is to reduce spending, not shutter the government.

 Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, led a budget seminar for nearly 40 House freshmen before the start of the new Congress. 

She believes freshman conservatives are itching to make a dramatic statement by shutting down the government. 

 “It was clear there was a group of new members who in my mind were more concerned with making statements than working with their own leadership to solve the nation’s problems,” said Bilmes. “Nothing I’ve seen in the last week changes my mind.

“There are certainly some elements within the Tea Party group that are looking to make a dramatic statement.”  The House is moving forward with its 2011 spending plan this week, though GOP congressional leaders are considering postponing a showdown with Democrats for at least several weeks, according to aides.  

That way, the stare-down with the White House would coincide with the debate on increasing the nation’s debt limit. If embraced, this strategy would give Republican leaders another bargaining chip in the high-stakes negotiation over the debt limit, maximizing their political leverage, some GOP sources say. 

 However, this would necessitate the passing of at least one CR. 

 “I’ve heard that idea,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “I don’t know how this is going to play out. I’m going to defer to the leadership on strategy.”

A senior Senate Republican aide stressed that GOP leaders are mulling separate battles on the CR to fund government for the rest of 2011 and legislation to increase the debt limit. 

 “Also being discussed is using each as an opportunity of its own,” said the GOP aide. “Senate Republicans want to cut spending any way they can.”

 McConnell said he and his Republican colleagues will unify around what emerges from the House. It’s not clear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would allow a vote on the House Republican proposal. 

 The House plan is expected to attempt to defund the Obama administration’s implementation of healthcare reform, a non-starter in the Democratic-led Senate that could trigger a veto threat from the White House. 

Horizontal Divider 7

Murder Suspect Dead, Corrections Officer Killed in Line of Duty

Sources tell News 13 murder suspect Wade Williams is dead.

Wednesday morning, authorities began searching for murder suspect Wade Williams in Holmes County once again. Our newspaper partners at the Jackson County Floridan say that the Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts tells them Williams came in contact with a homeowner and fired 8 shots at them but missed. This happened in the Gritney area on Pheil Lane off of Highway 179.

Authorities quickly deployed search units including K9, helicopters and officers on the ground following the incident. Little details are known at this time.

What we do know is that several rounds of gun fire were exchanged between Williams and officers. And during that incident, the Florida Department of Corrections says one of their K9 officers was shot. Our radio partners at WZEP report that the officer, Greg Malloy, has died from his injuries. Malloy worked at the Holmes County Correctional Institution in Bonifay.

Williams was wanted for the murders of his mother and father, Bruce and Sharon Williams. The Cottondale couple was found dead in their home last Wednesday afternoon.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is responding.

Horizontal Divider 7

USP Atwater: Officers say closing towers risks safety

Prison leaders say technology in place to aid surveillance.

Horizontal Divider 7

Facing Furloughs
By Emily Long

In the first month of the new Congress, federal employees have been hit hard by proposals from lawmakers to cut government jobs and further reduce their pay and benefits. Also on the table are mandatory furloughs, which, if implemented, would start next year.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., on Jan. 12 introduced a bill that would require all federal employees not working in the areas of defense, public health, homeland security, or law enforcement to take two weeks of mandatory unpaid leave in fiscal 2012.

The proposal would not require federal workers to take a single continuous two-week furlough. It could work more as it has in a number of states that in recent years have begun furloughing employees on specified days, or requiring workers to take unpaid leave for a certain number of hours annually to help ease budget shortfalls. But observers have questioned the impact of a federal furlough, noting it might cost more than it would save.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, federal employees can be placed on emergency furlough in the case of a government shutdown, when agencies no longer have the appropriated funds to perform services. A "save money" furlough, by contrast, occurs when an agency must cut costs as a result of downsizing, reduced funding, or diminished work. These furloughs are planned and allow advance notice for employees.

With that as background, take our quiz to learn more about how a furlough could affect you.

1. Do I lose benefits, such as health insurance and retirement credit, during a furlough?

a. Yes. No pay, no benefits.
b. No, but coverage could change depending on the length of the furlough.
c. No. The government will continue to provide benefits no matter what.

2. Can I take a second job during a furlough?

a. Yes, anything that will pay the bills is fair game.
b. Yes, but agency ethics rules still apply and will prohibit certain kinds of employment.
c. No. Being a fed means no on-the-side jobs.

3. Can I still take my vacation, or request to use paid leave while on furlough?

a. Yes, you can still get a paycheck for those days off.
b. Yes, if you've already decided to take paid time off, but no new requests will be honored.
c. No. All paid leave will be canceled, whether planned or unplanned.

4. Am I still eligible for performance awards, within-grade and step increases during a furlough?

a. Yes and no. Agencies don't have to pay performance awards, but cannot deny within-grade and step increases.
b. Yes. Furloughs affect only base salaries.
c. No. All pay increases come to a halt during furloughs.

Think you've mastered the 411 on furloughs? Click here for the answers.

Horizontal Divider 7

By Arelis R. Hernández, Orlando Sentinel

Wo 'Se Piankhi-Shabaka was locked up for life on murder charges in the federal prison in Central Florida; prison remains on lockdown.  Federal authorities have identified an inmate that was killed after fight broke out between two prisoners at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County.  Prison spokesman Gary Miller said Wo 'Se Piankhi-Shabaka was pronounced dead by emergency medical staff after he fought with another inmate about 6 a.m. inside a housing unit in the men's high security facility — United States Penitentiary II. The inmates were outside their cells when the fight began.  Miller said the prison is under lockdown while the FBI continues to investigate the murder. Lockdown confines inmates to their cells.  Piankhi-Shabaka was serving a life sentence for murder on armed, burglary, and robbery charges in Washington, D.C. He has been a
prisoner at Coleman since March 2007.  Piankhi-Shabaka's death was confirmed by an on-call emergency room doctor from the Leesburg Regional Hospital an hour after the attack.  Officials did not identify the other prisoner involved in the altercation. No other inmates were hurt.  The other inmate was placed in a special housing unit, Miller said. There was
no word on the cause of death. The attack occurred in a housing unit of 128 inmates in two-man cells. Miller declined to say how many guards were on duty.

This is the second inmate death in less than a month at the country's largest federal prison.  On Dec. 17, inmate Miguel Jimenez was found stabbed in the recreation yard of the prison's other high security facility. Jimenez, who was just a few months from release, later died from his injuries.  That facility, United States Penitentiary I, is still on lockdown while officials investigate the murder.  The prison consists of five sections, including a low-security wing, a medium-security wing, two high-security wings and a camp for female inmates.  The sprawling complex about 50 miles northwest of Orlando houses about 7,300 inmates and has a history of inmate violence.  Fights erupted between prisoners and corrections officers on two different occasions in October 2009, injuring
the guards.  Earlier that year in January, a riot broke out in the prison yard. Eight inmates suffered stab wounds and at least one gunshot wound. No guards were injured, and no cause was ever released.  Three inmates were hospitalized in 2007 with stab wounds. Two men were indicted in October
2007 after they beat and fatally stabbed another prisoner in the recreation yard.

Horizontal Divider 7

Fight at Coleman federal prison kills an inmate


Inmate killed in fight at federal prison

A federal inmate died Wednesday after a fight with another inmate at Federal Correctional Complex northwest of Orlando.

Authorities say the conflict broke out about 5:50 a.m. in a housing unit.

Staff members separated the inmates, who were taken to the prison's medical department. One inmate died at 7:01 a.m. The condition of the other inmate was not available.

Officials say the prison was placed on lockdown. Names of the inmates were not released.

Horizontal Divider 7

Oakdale inmate sentenced for assaulting officer
The following is a news release from the United States Attorney's Office:
LAKE CHARLES, LA - United States Attorney Stephanie A. Finley announced the sentencing of Howard Harris, 34, an inmate at the Federal Correction Complex (FCC) in Oakdale, La, for assaulting two correctional officers at the FCC facility. Harris was sentenced to 95 months in prison and three years supervised release following the completion of his prison sentence. The sentence was imposed by U. S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi.
Harris was convicted after a one-day trial last September, on one count of assault of federal correctional officers. Court testimony showed that Harris, who had an extensive disciplinary record, was assigned to the Special Housing Unit for disciplinary separation from the general population. On February 19, 2009, two correctional officers at FCC Oakdale were removing inmates from their cells in the Special Housing Unit and escorting them to the recreation yard. During this process, Harris threw a liquid substance (feces and urine mixed together) through the food slot onto the officers, striking them on the chest and in the mouth and eyes. The defendant's disciplinary record includes incidents similar to the charged conduct in this matter.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Myers P. Namie.

Horizontal Divider 7

Rolling Over
By Emily Long

The new year brings with it an added benefit for spouses of deceased federal workers or military personnel enrolled in the Thrift Savings Plan: spouses now have their own personal beneficiary participant accounts.

During the past year, surviving spouse beneficiaries could participate in an interim program that allowed them to leave beneficiary money in the TSP, but those funds now will be placed in accounts under their own names rather than in a skeleton account. Beneficiaries whose share of the TSP balance is greater than $200 automatically will have a personal account established. Those with less than $200 will have funds paid directly to them rather than the TSP account.

Beneficiary participant accounts automatically are invested in the stable government securities (G) fund, but users can make interfund transfers into any of the individual TSP investment options or a life-cycle fund, which mixes stocks, bonds and securities.

"There are a lot of different things you can do with [the money], but you really need to take a step back and determine where you stand financially in the short term and what you want to accomplish," said Ashby Daniels, financial adviser at First Command Financial Services, adding beneficiaries need to assess their risk tolerance and reinvest accordingly.

Surviving spouses who themselves are, or were, federal employees can move beneficiary funds into their existing TSP accounts using Form TSP-90. They will not be able to make contributions or transfer money into their beneficiary participant accounts, however.

If spouses roll the funds into their own TSP, then they forfeit the ability to make early withdrawals from the beneficiary account without penalty, said Daniels. The withdrawal options are the same as a regular TSP account, and beneficiaries can invest withdrawn funds in a different type of account, he said.

If funds came from a uniformed services TSP account, then they can include tax-exempt contributions as a result of combat pay. That money cannot be transferred into a civilian TSP account and will be distributed directly to beneficiaries.

Participants can designate account beneficiaries using Form TSP-3.

More than 1 million TSP participants no longer employed by the federal government have funds remaining in their accounts. Tom Trabucco, director of external affairs for the TSP, said he expects beneficiary participant accounts will be popular, but noted the program won't grow to the 1 million participant level.

"It's certainly not insignificant," he said. "We expect this is a number that's going to grow over time as survivors continue to leave funds in the TSP."

Debut of the L 2050 Fund

The TSP also is preparing to open a new life-cycle fund, designed to move investors to less risky portfolios as they get closer to retirement. The L 2050 Fund will open on Jan. 31 and will invest higher percentages in domestic and foreign stocks -- C, S and I funds -- and lower percentages in government securities and bonds (G and F funds). Participants can begin making contribution allocations and interfund transfers into the L 2050 at 12 p.m. EST on Jan. 28. The L 2010 Fund closed on Dec. 31, 2010, and all investments were.

Horizontal Divider 7

Feds receive revised retirement statements

The Office of Personnel Management is reconciling federal employees' retirement system deposits after years of miscalculated payments.

OPM has been working since 2008 on a fix to its Service Credit System, which calculates retirement annuities for those who either did not contribute to the retirement fund during a certain period, or those who received a refund of retirement contributions. The glitch caused employees in both the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System to be charged incorrect interest rates on their service credit deposits. In some cases, workers paid no interest at all, according to OPM. The agency estimated the error affected 12,000 participants.

OPM Director John Berry initially pledged to overhaul the system by April 2010.

OPM last week sent letters to all affected participants, including those who made payments and did not receive a receipt, with account details. The agency has recalculated the interest owed to determine current balances.

According to David Snell, retirement benefits manager for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, CSRS and FERS participants owing less than $100 have the option to withhold the outstanding balance from their finalized annuity payment.

Other account holders will be given a one-time six month grace period, which began Jan. 1, to pay off their current balance without accruing additional interest. If participants do not pay off what they owe by June 30, then they will be charged interest on the remaining balance, according to OPM.

"With the law changing in 2009 that allowed FERS employees to pay back for periods of refunded service, which before they couldn't do, and none of that service was creditable for retirement, they can now repay for periods of service," said Snell. "I'm sure that that impacted workload at OPM at the same time they were having problems with the system."

Horizontal Divider 7