In February 2018, the Office of Personnel Management updated its guidance regarding political appointees converting to civil service positions, requiring those employees to receive OPM permission before applying for a permanent position. Civil service laws prohibit hiring individuals into permanent, career positions on the basis of political affiliation or partisan loyalties, which has the potential to weaken the professional civil service. Such conversions, often referred to as “burrowing in,” are a frequent concern during transitions between administrations, with the fear being that political appointees of one party who are improperly installed into career positions could thwart future initiatives of a president of another party.
These fears were amplified in the face of the Trump administration’s politicization of multiple federal agencies. At the same time, the White House’s purges of employees perceived as being insufficiently loyal to the president have accelerated. Shortly after the 2020 election, press reported that White House lawyer Michael Ellis had been hired into the career role of general counsel of the National Security Agency, raising concerns that it would be one of a wave of positions being filled by people serving the President Donald Trump’s political interests over those of the American public.
Adding to these concerns was Trump’s decision in July 2020 to nominate John Gibbs — a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had pushed a conspiracy theory about the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign — as the new head of OPM. That appointment came after the previous OPM chief, Dale Cabaniss, had abruptly resigned because of “poor treatment” by John McEntee, the director of the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office who had been spearheading the loyalty purges. Since then, multiple reports indicate that “burrowing” has become more widespread throughout the administration.
American Oversight is investigating the degree to which political appointees were improperly converted to career status — and whether OPM’s guidelines were followed throughout the federal government.
In particular, American Oversight is requesting documents with the potential to show whether and to what extent agencies requested that OPM approve the hiring of political appointees into career positions, as well las documents that may shed light on whether hiring decisions were politically influenced. For example, we have sent requests for documents surrounding Ellis’ hiring as NSA general counsel, including records sufficient to show his qualifications for the position and whether applications from other candidates were appropriately solicited and considered.