Stuck in the Swamp

Bill Neinast

Our President may not be able to fulfill one of his campaign promises.  If the swamp he said he would drain includes federal employees below the presidential appointment level, he will find a swamp more stagnant than he anticipated.

There is no disinfectant for the stagnation at that level because it would be easier to refloat the Titanic than to fire an incompetent federal employee.

This observation on the job security of federal personnel is based on personal experience.  Here is some of that experience.

In 1973-76, I was Chief of the Army’s civil litigation division. My staff of more than 30 attorneys and support personnel was managing, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, about 2,000 cases in every level of the federal judicial system.  

The cases included medical malpractice, contract disputes, personnel discrimination,  Lieutenant William (My Lai atrocity) Calley’s civil appeal of his court-martial conviction, maritime disputes, and many others.  Dr. Spock even sued us because a post commander would not let him make a speech on his post.

When one of our secretaries (that is what they were called in those days) retired or resigned, we went to the personnel office for a replacement.  Normally we could choose from a number of candidates qualified for the job description of the vacant position.  

On one occasion, however, we were told that we had no choice.  There was a qualified individual on the stopper list.  

An employee whose job is abolished goes on the stopper list and the next time there is an opening for a similar job, the slot must be filled by him or her.

That is how I inherited Miss B (called that because we could not pronounce her last name).  The nicest thing that can be said about her is that she was worthless.  She could not or would not do anything right.  

After several weeks of trying to get something usable out of Miss B, we went back to the personnel office, described the situation, and said she had to be replaced.  We were told that, before that could be done, Miss B had to be given a 90 day probationary period.

Her immediate supervisor had to give her a detailed written description of each of her duties with time lines and how many errors would be accepted.  If she failed one of the guidelines, she had to be given a detailed written description of the failure and what could be done to avoid a repeat.

For the next 90 days, Miss B performed every task flawlessly.  On day 91, however, she was back to her old ways.  So back to the personnel office. The answer was the same.  As she had performed satisfactorily for 90 days, we had to give her another 90 day probationary run.

I was reassigned about midway through that second probation.  When my replacement was told he would have to give her a third probation, he abolished the job and she went back on the stopper list to burden some other office.

About 13 years before Miss B, I had a similar experience in Germany.  I was in the office of Judge Advocate,  Headquarters, U.S. Army, Europe, in Heidelberg. A civilian attorney, John K. was on the staff.

John, a bachelor, is hard to describe.  He was a hoarder and a tight wad who would take coffee breaks at the officers’ club (where he was not a member), get a glass of water, take a slice or two of lemon from the tea stand, and take a seat to mix his lemonade with the sugar on the table.

His legal talents matched his personal habits.  Here, for example, is one of his opinions dated Jan. 26, 1953. It involved a Report of Survey, a proceeding to determine whether a soldier could be held liable for the loss or damage of government property.  If there was not enough evidence of negligence or wrongdoing, there was no liability.

John's opinion, however, was, “The evidence in the accompanying file is insufficient to warrant either the imposition or relief from pecuniary liability.”

When the Judge Advocate had enough of this conduct and legal acumen, John’s job was abolished.  He went on the stopper list and found a position in another Judge Advocate’s office.

In that position, John claimed his GS rating was higher than it was so that he could return to the U.S. in a luxury ship for his periodic home leave. 

When that caper was discovered, he was fired for misconduct. He then sued for reinstatement and won.

I do not know what happened to him after that, but I assume some Judge Advocates somewhere had to put up with him until he died or retired.

So here’s the perspective.

Sorry, Mr. President.  Accept it.   You are stuck with the swamp below the level of your appointments.   


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