Money and Democracy

Published — January 19, 2017

With morale in tatters, Federal Election Commission eyes changes

New ‘ombudsman’ office, better staff training among agency chairman’s proposals


Federal Election Commission leaders — dogged by abysmal staff morale and a top manager improperly obtaining employees’ confidential critiques — are considering changes to how the agency operates in a bid to restore staff trust.

Chief among them: the creation of a new “ombudsman” office dedicated to investigating and resolving staff complaints and internal conflicts, according to an internal proposal written by the agency’s chairman and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

As written, the proposal further calls for formal, anonymous reviews of agency managers by subordinates, as well as better manager training.

Staff Director Alec Palmer would also be required to file quarterly reports with the agency’s six commissioners detailing, among other things, “the status and success of efforts made to establish and maintain high morale among agency staff.”

Many staffers are still reeling from an incident last year in which FEC Inspector General Lynn McFarland said a top manager — identified as Chief Compliance Officer and Deputy Staff Director Patricia Orrock — duped her into releasing hundreds of confidential employee surveys critical of agency leaders.

FEC Chairman Steven Walther, a Democratic appointee who identifies as an independent, acknowledged being the primary author of the four-page proposal, entitled “staff rights and management responsibilities.”

Walther stressed that the proposal is not yet finalized and is still being circulated among FEC staffers for input. He wouldn’t predict when the full commission would vote on a final proposal for the roughly 350-employee agency that enforces the nation’s campaign finance laws.

“The goal is to restore some trust and not just walk away,” said Walther, who along with Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen has conducted more than 12 hours of meetings with rank-and-file employees to calm nerves and solicit input. Walther added that he hopes to make a more finalized version of his proposal public “very soon.”

Added Commissioner Ann Ravel, a Democrat: “There isn’t any question in my mind that something needs to happen. We had actions that constituted a breach of trust, and it’s really important that we take this, and morale in general, seriously.”

Neither Petersen nor fellow Republican commissioners — Vice Chairwoman Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman — responded to requests for comment. Nor did Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

Palmer, the staff director, also did not return requests for comment. But in a Dec. 19 email to FEC commissioners and other top staffers, Palmer listed several efforts his management team has undertaken to address morale concerns.

Palmer also praised the embattled Orrock for “her outstanding leadership within the compliance division” and reported witnessing “overwhelming joy and happiness” among FEC compliance division staff as they gathered during a December holiday party.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents FEC employees, said FEC leaders must “be prepared to arrive at a concrete plan to improve employee morale.”

Reardon added that FEC leaders are including union representatives in their deliberations. “There is a lot of work to be done at the FEC, but the conversations we are having now are the right first step,” he said.

The FEC’s Office of the General Counsel is also making changes in this year to “address areas of concern” and foster “growth and improvement,” according to a separate letter written earlier this month by Acting General Counsel Lisa Stevenson to her staff.

Changes in this office, which houses more than one in three FEC employees, include:

  • More rigorous reviews of, and enhanced training for, the law department’s managers
  • Enhanced training opportunities for the office’s rank-and-file lawyers
  • Increased pursuit of minority job candidates
  • Creating a system for employees to anonymously submit complaints and suggestions directly to Stevenson

“I assure you that OGC Management doesn’t see improving morale as a one-off, ‘check-the-box’ project,” Stevenson wrote. “We’re committed to investing the resources and effort needed to make lasting changes.”

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