The Secret Service has offered to "fast-track" disability retirement for able-bodied agents and other employees in return for dropping complaints or disputes, according to an agent who filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint and several Department of Homeland Security sources.
The agency allegedly offered to defraud taxpayers by expediting a false disability-retirement application last summer as the service was grappling with budget woes trying to meet the 2016 presidential campaign's unprecedented operational demands.
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More recently, the Secret Service has said it needs $200 to $300 million more a year to hire enough people and put the right technology in place to safeguard President Donald Trump, as well as his large family and many residences, and former President Barack Obama and his family, who currently reside in a private residence in Washington, D.C.
There was no concern expressed about the agency's fiscal constraints when the Secret Service allegedly offered to "fast-track" a disability retirement for Robert MacQueen, a 24-year-veteran special agent.
His complaints that the agency retaliated against him for whistleblowing are the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Homeland Security Department's Office of Inspector General.
MacQueen said the agency has waged a four-and-a-half-year effort aimed at intimidating him and crushing him financially to try to convince him to drop his retaliation complaints.
The agency indefinitely suspended MacQueen's security clearance in early 2013. He has spent more than three years on indefinite unpaid leave fighting charges that he misused his government vehicle and claimed more overtime pay than he deserved. He denies the charges, and he and his attorney said the agency has ignored detailed, exculpatory evidence.
When he continued to refuse to drop his retaliation charges, he said a Secret Service attorney last year offered to "fast-track" his disability-retirement application during a judge-ordered mediation session.
MacQueen immediately rejected the verbal offer and days later complained about it to Secret Service officials, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative judge, and other U.S. officials.
An official at DHS, the umbrella department overseeing the Secret Service, said MacQueen's experience resembles other instances in which the Secret Service made the same or similar offers to expedite disability-retirement applications to resolve other workers' disputes over security-clearance suspensions or revocations.
The DHS official made the statement in an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. Several other sources in the Secret Service community cited similar cases in which agents or officers in disputes with the agency have taken disability retirement even though they do not appear to be disabled.
Secret Service declines to comment on whether it made the offer
When the Free Beacon asked Secret Service spokeswoman Catherine Milhoan whether a Secret Service attorney made an offer to MacQueen to help him "fast-track" or expedite a disability-retirement application, she declined to comment.
"We have no comment," she said in an email.
She did not respond to multiple follow-up questions about the alleged offer.
In a subsequent email a day after her original "no-comment" response, Milhoan pointed out that the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, not the Secret Service, has the authority to "grant" disability retirement.
The OPM's website shows that federal agencies and departments can and do play a key role in helping confirm and fast-track employees' disability-retirement applications.
The agency "must certify that it is unable to accommodate your disabling medical condition in your present position" and that it has "considered you for any vacant position in the same agency at the same grade or pay level," the website states.
Additionally, if the disability retirement is made after 31 days of the employee leaving the agency, the employee is responsible for submitting the application, the website says. Any time before that, the agency is responsible for submitting the disability-retirement application.
A week later, after direct inquiries to the attorney in question, a Secret Service spokeswoman repeated the agency’s argument that OPM determines employee eligibility for disability retirement and didn’t respond to a direct question on whether one of their attorneys offered to "fast-track" the process for MacQueen.
"We cannot directly address specific personnel issues or allegations," Milhoan said. "We can say we do not have the authority to approve or ‘fast-track' a disability retirement application. To the extent that the possibility of an employee seeking retirement under a mental health or medical disability arises during the course of litigation, the agency only provides or offers to provide assistance to the extent allowed by OPM."
"Any and all allegations that the Secret Service engages in disability fraud is [sic] completely false,"
Knowingly helping to defraud the government by "fast-tracking" or "certifying" false disability claims is criminal behavior and could amount to a felony, according to Robert Waldeck, an attorney who specializes in federal employment law.
Federal disability-retirement applications require a worker's supervisor to certify that they are disabled and can no longer find work at the agency. If the Secret Service is offering to do this when they know the person applying is not disabled, Waldeck said, such an act could be punishable under a U.S. law prohibiting government officials from making false statements.
The law makes it a felony to "knowingly and willingly" make any "materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation" in any jurisdiction of the federal government.
Waldeck said the agency's offer in return for dropping complaints against it, in and of itself, could be considered "evidence of retaliatory intent."
"Evidence of misconduct surrounding the attempt to conceal a whistleblower's report is evidence of retaliatory intent—it goes to the heart of a retaliatory case," he said. "It would seem to be designed to further conceal the complaints."
Secret Service Agent: ‘I am 100-percent able-bodied'
A year into the DHS OIG investigation regarding his complaints of retaliation, MacQueen said a Secret Service attorney offered to "fast-track" a disability retirement for him as a "universal settlement of all matters," even though MacQueen is able-bodied, never experienced an injury, never complained of any physical problems, and never inquired about disability compensation of any kind.
Along with MacQueen and the Secret Service attorney, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) moderator was on the call. MacQueen said it was the only offer the Secret Service made to him, and was not listed among a number of different options he could pursue to resolve the dispute.
In the days following the mediation session, MacQueen was so outraged over the offer to help him "fast-track" a disability retirement, he sent several emails to the Secret Service attorney, the moderator, the EEOC administrative judge who ordered the mediation, and other Secret Service officials inquiring about the legal issues the offer raised. He says no one, including the judge and the EEOC moderator, responded to his emails.
"As I am 100-percent able-bodied, which [redacted] knows full well, a ‘disability retirement' would be a lie, a falsehood, a fraud," he wrote in one email to the Secret Service attorney, the EEOC moderator, and the judge.
When told of MacQueen's accusations, the Secret Service attorney did not return a request for comment.
An EEOC spokeswoman said only that the agency does not keep transcripts or notes from mediation sessions. She did not respond to an inquiry asking if the EEOC mediator could say whether the Secret Service attorney offered to "fast-track" a disability retirement application for MacQueen during the June 2 mediation session.
MacQueen, who graduated first in his class at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in 1993, had passed both his most recent quarterly Secret Service physical agility test and annual medical exam with flying colors—results the agency would have on record, his attorney said.
MacQueen said he was always in the top 40 percent, and several years in the top 10 percent of all agents in the Secret Service-wide ranking system used for promotion evaluations since 2006. He also had served as the assistant Secret Service attaché to the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, a prestigious assignment, in the late 2000s.
Additionally, MacQueen said he was set to be promoted to the assistant special agent in charge of the Buffalo field office, the No. 2 position in that office and a GS-14-level post, in the fall of 2012 before the agency accused him of misusing his government vehicle and wrongly claiming overtime work on the weekends.
He says he never had a disciplinary case against him until late 2012 when the agency leveled these charges, suspended the promotion, and began taking additional disciplinary action against him.
He considers their allegations an act of retaliation for a complaint he filed with the Secret Service ombudsman a few months before about the way the Secret Service and a U.S. attorney handled an investigation into an alleged Ponzi scheme in Minneapolis.
The most serious acts of retaliation, his indefinite suspension without pay and his security clearance suspension, he said, came after he complained to his interrogators and in writing to a top Secret Service attorney about what he regarded as overly harsh interrogation tactics that both he and a colleague experienced during agency investigations into their alleged misconduct.
He said the other agent committed suicide within days of his interrogation session and was not provided DHS-required counseling sessions even though interrogators were so worried about his mental state after the interrogation that they took away his gun.
MacQueen said investigators engaged in wife-baiting, a technique aimed at provoking an angry or suspicious reaction or admission.
He said the agent investigating his case called his wife on her personal cell phone and asked her how she felt about the Secret Service investigation against her husband and later used that same line of questioning involving his wife during his interrogation at agency headquarters.
$1.9 billion federal disability program rife with abuse
Federal worker disability retirements can provide recipients with tax-free payments for life.
Recipients with dependents collect 75 percent of their previous wages tax-free, which is roughly 26 percent more than they could make if they retire under their government pension plan, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
"The federal disability retirement program are much more generous than what most people get [from similar state government programs] around the country. The disability costs in the Federal Employment Compensation Act are escalating way out of proportion to what the states are seeing in their comparable programs," said Leslie Paige, vice president of policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group. "When you see these differentials, you have to question whether the FECA program is being gamed and used as early retirement."
Congress in recent years has tried to reduce rampant fraud in the federal-worker disability program, which costs taxpayers $1.9 billion a year. Federal employee disability compensation of all types is highly vulnerable to abuse by workers who exaggerate or make up injuries they claim keep them from returning to work, investigators have found.
The Labor Department's inspector general reported to Congress in 2013 that it continued to find "high amounts" of "[disability] compensation and medical fraud" and found that the department, which administers the program, lacked "effective controls over the detection of improper payments."
Fraud and abuse in the program is an ongoing problem, Paige said.
"It appears this program is highly vulnerable to abuse—and IGs, and to the extent anyone has looked into it, some of the oversight bodies have expressed concern over the program’s integrity. If the Secret Service is using it to inappropriately resolve a whistleblower's case, that's something that needs to be thoroughly investigated," Page said.
"This agent doesn't seem to be seeking to make a claim for disability—why is it being offered? These programs should never be used as bargaining chips to try to resolve a whistleblower case," she added. "This sort of end-run-around process is the dark-matter of government waste, mismanagement and abuse that infuriates taxpayers and is really hard to expose and correct, but it has to be addressed."
"If there's one example, there's probably more agency-wide; where is the oversight and accountability?" she added. "The answers are being stonewalled behind bureaucratic dodges."
Agent's attorney: Secret Service plays favorites and protects ‘favored elite' while punishing whistleblowers
The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General (DHS-OIG) has spent the last two years investigating MacQueen's case, following his filing of a whistleblower protection complaint under Presidential Policy Directive 19, an executive action aimed at protecting whistleblowers with access to classified information.
The DHS-OIG investigation is ongoing, according to a June 7, 2017, email from the assistant inspector general for external affairs sent to Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas).
MacQueen would like to see some resolution so he can either be cleared and go back to work for the agency or retire and collect the regular retirement benefits he has earned for his more than two decades of service, as well as any compensation the IG deems appropriate for attorney fees, as well as the retaliation and his years on unpaid suspension.
Sean Bigley, MacQueen's attorney and a partner at Bigley Ranish, which specializes in security-clearance cases, said the agency has a reputation of protecting "their favored elite" involved in serious misconduct while targeting others with unpaid leave and other disciplinary actions that will exact a financial toll and forever harm their careers.
"If you are one of their favored elite, you can drive into bomb scenes drunk or publicly renounce your oath to protect the president, all while keeping your security clearance and continuing to get paid," he said. "But if you dare to expose wrongdoing, they will call you a security threat and financially squeeze you until can no longer afford to continue fighting."
"My client is a father and sole breadwinner for a family of five—he's barely hanging on by a thread at this point, and he deserves some resolution to this case," he said.
Bigley was referring to two episodes involving agents charged with serious misconduct remaining on paid leave and retaining their security clearances until they were either demoted or allowed to retire with full benefits.
One incident in 2015 involved an agent who was the second-in-command of the president's protective detail and another who was a senior supervisor in the Washington field office running into a active suspicious package investigation on White House grounds in a government vehicle after a night of drinking. Both remained on paid leave while awaiting disciplinary action, retained their security clearances, and were allowed to retire with full benefits.
Kerry O'Grady, the former top agent in charge of the Secret Service's Denver district office, has remained on paid leave and retained her security clearance while the agency investigated comments she made on Facebook that she would rather not "take a bullet" for President Trump and is part of the so-called "resistance" movement against Trump.