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NCIS agents: Bosses trying to force us out

Mar. 12, 2013 - 11:48AM   |  
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Current and former NCIS agents have accused the Navy’s law enforcement arm of attempting to quietly downsize through a campaign of discrimination against seasoned agents, assertions with which the agency strenuously disagrees.

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Current and former NCIS agents have accused the Navy’s law enforcement arm of attempting to quietly downsize through a campaign of discrimination against seasoned agents, assertions with which the agency strenuously disagrees.

The agents allege that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is involuntarily relocating scores of agents, ordering them to move great distances for billets often outside their specialties. They view the shifts as a hardball tactic intended to garner resignation letters.

One veteran Dallas-based criminal investigator, for instance, was told he’d have to move to Hawaii for an anti-fraud billet; he’d never even worked a fraud case. Similarly, a manager was ordered from Washington, D.C., to Naples, Italy, despite five volunteers for the same post. After she complained, she was ordered to Norfolk, Va., where she says there was nothing to do.

“They sat me in a conference room without a phone, without anything,” said the former agent, a mother of three who opted to retire last year; she requested anonymity because her new job involves consulting with other federal agencies. “No job for two months — which is total waste, fraud and abuse on top of the stress on my family.”

Interviews with eight current and former agents make clear that many field officers are upset with the agency’s tactics, but headquarters maintains there is no force-out campaign. Rather, involuntary transfers are part of a renewed push to ensure agents are assignable to support the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ law enforcement needs around the world.

NCIS, which has 1,876 employees, faces budget pressure and says it is reducing staff through natural attrition. Last year, 60 special agents were involuntarily transferred, roughly one-fifth of the total moves, NCIS figures show.

“The allegations that we were trying to ... force people to go because it makes it easier for us budget-wise [are] simply not true,” said Andy Hogan, NCIS’ assistant human resources director. “The fact of the matter is, I’ve got these operational requirements to fill. We’ve picked these people to go. I need them to go.”

‘They keep pushing me’

The agents have come forward because, they say, the heavy-handed tactics continue, despite an on-going investigation.

“Senior management has been directing an inordinate number of forced transfers in order to cause attrition and send a clear message to employees of who has the power,” Steven Morrison, then a special agent, wrote in his June 17 complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General, which was provided to Navy Times. Many of the targeted, Morrison alleged, were chosen based on their time in one location or because they had child-custody or financial issues that would make them likely to resign when faced with relocation.

“In addition to the human toll, many of these forced transfers are expensive and unnecessary,” wrote Morrison, who left the agency in October.

Morrison and others say the agency is violating its own rules by transferring agents involuntarily before qualified volunteers. Agents are told that they will need to move multiple times during their careers. But in its “conditions of employment” form, the agency says it “is committed to considering” how moves will affect an individual’s career and personal affairs, and that transfers will be voluntary to the extent possible. Open jobs are advertised for agents to bid on. If there are no qualified volunteers, then managers may choose a nonvolunteer.

Transfers cannot be used as punishment — an agency rule one special agent claims is being violated.

At an internal NCIS forum to discuss policies last year, Special Agent Lynda Carpenter questioned agency leaders, including then-Director Mark Clookie, and said she was retaliated against for it.

“One month later, I’m on the transfer list to Guam into a billet that they didn’t even advertise,” said Carpenter, an eight-year NCIS veteran based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in counterintelligence. Carpenter filed a complaint and was eventually exempted because she was pregnant, but the agent thinks she was targeted for being vocal at the forum.

“Agency morale is the worst that I’ve ever seen it,” Carpenter said.

Hogan, the personnel manager, declined to discuss Carpenter’s assignment or other specific cases.

Others say the agency is not taking agents’ family needs into consideration.

Michael Devine, an expert in counterintelligence based in Los Angeles, was ordered in 2012 to work domestic violence cases in Twentynine Palms, Calif. But Devine asked for a humanitarian waiver. His son Austin, 18, has autism and suffers from severe seizures. Devine and Austin’s doctor worried the move would disrupt Austin’s health. An NCIS committee recommended approval of Devine’s request, but it was turned down by the agency’s No. 2, Mark Ridley, who became the agency’s acting director March 1 when Clookie stepped down.

Devine, a captain in the Navy Reserve, chose to retire instead of serving more years as he had planned. Devine says he is a victim of the agency’s cloak-and-dagger downsizing.

“NCIS is making their quota by forcing good, hardworking agents to choose between their families and their jobs,” Devine said. Special Agent Michael Maloney also feels targeted. He has been stationed most of his 11-year career in Jacksonville, Fla., a sought-after posting he believes has made him a target. But Maloney has a dilemma: His 8-year-old son, Evan, has leukemia. Maloney said that moving him in the middle of his long-term treatment could jeopardize Evan’s progress.

Nonetheless, Maloney said he is being pressured to apply for positions in other regions. In late February he was encouraged to bid again by NCIS officials, who have told him that there are other hospitals where his son can be treated.

Maloney is not retirement-eligible and said losing his job would devastate for his family. His son’s cancer has been in remission for a year and Maloney is asking for at least three years before he has to move.

“Maybe I’m just caught up in everything and they keep pushing me to see if I’ll blink,” Maloney said.

Hogan, the 25-year NCIS veteran who manages assignments, said he was aware that the new policy has hurt morale.

“It’s mostly the people who’ve been asked to do something out of their comfort zone or relocate,” he observed. But he reiterated that mobility is and has always been a requirement for NCIS agents and that this was crucial now, as the agency tries to downsize.

“This is hard, it’s uncomfortable,” Hogan said. “I wish we could make everybody happy all the time, but at the end of the day we have to … make sure we meet our mission requirements.”

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