Bipartisan leaders of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee have said they will hold hearings on the membership of foreign service promotion boards at the State Department after an IG report raised questions about possible favoritism in the selection of representatives from the general public on those panels.
The promotion boards are composed of foreign service personnel and public members who review candidates of comparable rank and areas of expertise; generally about 20 such boards convene per year for about four to eight weeks in the summer, the report said. Public members serve under contracts which in recent years have had potential value as high as $55,000, although in most cases the time actually required is not long enough to receive the maximum amount, it said.
The IG said that in an investigation following a whistleblower disclosure, it found that less than half of the public representatives on those panels over 2019-21 met qualifications under the Foreign Affairs Manual for serving. They “frequently failed to demonstrate that they had gained prominence in a profession, in business, in labor, or in a non-governmental organization or institution serviced by, or having an interest in, the foreign service.”
Further, in each year dating to 2014, some family members of departmental employees—including from the Office of Performance and Evaluation—had obtained contracts for such positions. That included the fathers of two officials who served on three boards each; the brother in law of another who served on two; the wife and sister of another who served on one each; a personal friend of another who served on one; a former neighbor of that same official who served on two; and the parent of a child who played sports with the child of another official who served on one.
The report said that the practice of State Department staff “referring and selecting friends and family to receive public member contracts is inconsistent with ethics standards. Because these contract opportunities are not fully open to the public, even providing friends and family with the opportunity to apply can create appearances of favoritism.”
Such selections further risk the operations of the board, it said, citing one relative who gained such a position who “did poorly, demonstrated a lack of comprehension, and would consistently miss the points of the board’s discussions.”
“This report raises questions of apparent violations of ethics, which undermine the credibility of the State Department,” Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md. and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said in announcing plans for hearings. They also called for enactment of bills pending in the committee to create a commission to reform personnel practices at the department and to modernize training and professional development of its employees.