State Dept. watchdog: Official's firing was case of political retaliation

A career State Department employee was forced out of her job on baseless accusations that she opposed President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE, was loyal to the Obama administration and was guilty of compromised objectivity due to her Iranian ethnicity, according to an inspector general report released Thursday.

Of the several cases reviewed by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in its report, released Thursday, it was the only one in which the office determined that political and presidential appointees at the State Department retaliated against a career service employee based on political motivations and other “improper personnel practices."

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Of four other cases the OIG investigated, there was inconclusive evidence for two instances, with the office saying it was unable to “obtain essential information from key decision makers.”

Two other cases were cleared, with the OIG finding no evidence of wrongdoing.

Accusations of politically motivated attacks on State Department officials are at the center of an impeachment inquiry into President Trump and whether he was guided by personal political motivations to oust a career foreign service officer from her post, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich.

The inspector general’s report, however, focuses on cases that date back to the time under the tenure of former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonReport: Trump UK ambassador fired deputy for mentioning Obama in speech Overnight Defense: Ex-Navy secretary slams Trump in new op-ed | Impeachment tests Pompeo's ties with Trump | Mexican president rules out US 'intervention' against cartels Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry MORE, who was fired by the president in March 2018.

The report describes the termination of career State employee Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who is currently a research fellow on Iran at Harvard University. According to the report, Nowrouzzadeh was working in the office of policy planning, a kind of internal think tank for the department, but was eventually reassigned from her work based on accusations stemming from conservative news articles.

These accusations were reenforced by other department employees who referred to career staffers as “Obama/Clinton loyalists” and “not supportive” of “Trump’s agenda.”

The OIG also documented that staff stated the employee was “born in Iran” and that this created a conflict of interest for work in policy planning.

The watchdog concluded in its report that Nowrouzzadeh's "perceived political opinions, perceived association with former administrations, and her perceived national origin played at least some role in the expressed opinions that" the employee should not remain in the assigned office.

The investigation was originally initiated by department employee complaints and congressional committees concerned that political and presidential appointees at the department were forcing out career staffers on baseless accusations of disloyalty to the president and his administration.

The inspector general recommended the secretary of State take disciplinary action against department employees who have disciplined employees on perceived political affiliations and not based solely on merit.

No State employees were singled out as necessitating disciplinary action, although seven were identified as playing roles in the offensive behavior against career employees.

These include Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran who at the time was the director of policy planning and responsible for terminating the career employee in that office.

The OIG report did not determine that Hook acted out of political motivation, saying it found no hard evidence to suggest he was personally motivated to end Nowrouzzadeh’s employment early.

Yet the report did raise questions of inconsistencies in his defense of his firing of the career staffer.

This included that Hook said he fired the career staffer to open up a position for J. Matthew McInnis to handle the Iran portfolio. Yet OIG, following up with McInnis, found that he and Hook only met for the first time months after the career staffer was terminated and only at the initiation of McInnis.

“OIG concluded this was not a convincing explanation” on the part of Hook for his reason to terminate the career employee, the report stated. 

The State Department counselor, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, responded to the OIG report saying that it “disagrees” with the finding that “improper considerations” led to Nowrouzzadeh’s termination and supported the Hook’s decision to let her go, saying it was based on “entirely professional and lawful reasons.”

Hook also challenged the OIG’s timeline of events and said that his decision to terminate Nowrouzzadeh came before any of the “non-merit” accusations and at a time when he was already considering bringing in new Iran experts.

The OIG also recommended a training program for political and presidential appointees on prohibited practices of dealing with career staffers and a review of the department's related policies. 

Nowrouzzadeh responded to the OIG’s report on Twitter, saying that she hopes the report “guards against any future misconduct by members of this or any future administration.”

“For nearly 15 years, I've been proud to serve our country, across Republican and Democratic administrations,” she wrote on Twitter. “I continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, to consider public service to our nation and to not be discouraged by these findings.”