For the second time in a year, the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled that the General Services Administration wrongfully terminated an employee connected to the Western Regions Conference scandal.
MSPB exonerated James Weller, the former Region 7 commissioner of the Public Building Service, of any wrongdoing and ordered GSA to pay him 19 months of back pay and give him his old job back. MSPB ruled in favor of Weller on Feb. 4.
"While it was a long time coming, it was the right decision and it was finally an indicator that I had cleared my name to some level," Weller said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. "I'm really looking forward to getting my job back ultimately and continuing to provide service to the government and in particular to Region 7 of the Public Building Service."
MSPB also ruled in March 2013 for former Region 8 PBS Commissioner Paul Prouty, finding similarly that GSA's case against him was devoid of evidence. GSA appealed MSPB's decision in favor of Prouty, and the case still is before the board.
Judge says government case lacked evidence
Similar to the Prouty case, the MSPB judge found the government's case against Weller lacked evidence.
"The decision found that there was no evidence to support any of the charges the government made against Jim," said Alan Lescht, Weller's attorney. "The judge ruled in his decision that outside of Jim's appearance at the final 'dry-run' meeting, Jim possessed no knowledge of the planning for WRC planning meetings until well after the fact. The judge ruled that Region 9 as the host for the Western Regions Conference was responsible for the logistics of the conference planning meeting. The judge ruled it was not possible for Jim to control the excess costs for these events. And the judge ruled the fact remains that Jim did not participate in the relevant purchasing decision and had no prior notice of those purchasing decisions."
He added the government tried to present evidence that Jim was Jeff Neely, the Region 9 commissioner, who was ultimately responsible for the WRC planning and was fired.
"We are disappointed with the Merit Systems Protection Board's ruling on this personnel matter," a GSA spokesman said in an email to Federal News Radio. "We are exploring all of our available options, including an appeal. GSA has taken strong action against those officials whom we believe were responsible and will continue to do so where appropriate. GSA leadership has taken significant steps over the past years to improve internal controls and oversight at the agency. To date, GSA has already saved more than $28 million in conference and travel spending."
GSA claimed Weller acted in a way that was unbecoming of a federal employee because of the "costs associated with the number of employees from Region 7 who attended the WRC, and the number of in-person planning meetings, as well as the number of Region 7 employees who participated in such meetings."
GSA alleged that Weller should've spoke out against the proposed conference costs.
But Weller testified that "he appointed two employees, Stephen Rutledge and Matthew Madison, to serve as representatives from Region 7 on the 'planning team' for the WRC, with the expectation that they would provide input on the content of the conference."
MSPB found Madison and Rutledge performed their roles autonomously with minimal feedback.
James Ferracci, who has been the acting Region 7 commissioner since the agency fired Weller, approved the travel vouchers for Madison to attend the planning meetings, meaning Weller had no direct knowledge of the meetings taking place or who attended it.
GSA also tried to say that Weller should've known and stopped the excessive costs of the Western Regions Conference. The GSA inspector general found the agency spent $823,000 on the conference, including $130,000 to plan it, including travel costs, and $146,000 on catered food during the event.
GSA has until March 11 to appeal
Again, MSPB ruled GSA's allegations didn't hold any merit as Weller "did not participate in the relevant purchasing decisions and had no prior notice of the resulting largesse, until actually partaking of it along with other conference attendees. Even had the appellant reacted at that point with greater alarm over the ready flow of petit beef wellington, et al., it was then too late for him to have 'stopped these irregularities,' as the agency charged."
GSA has until March 11 to appeal the MSPB ruling. Lescht said he was unsure if GSA would appeal, but speculates that the government will. If that happens, he said MSPB will take 6-to-12 months to make a final ruling.
In the meantime, the MSPB judge ruled that GSA owes Weller back pay since June 2012 and is required to reinstate him as the Region 7 PBS commissioner.
"The good news is the people in Fort Worth and the people in Atlanta, where I served both regions for 30 months prior to this event happening, are very supportive and understand the true Jim Weller and the way I perform my duties every today," Weller said. "Frankly, I'm looking forward to being of service to GSA and I think I can be a valuable employee going forward. Do I hold a grudge, am I upset about it? No, I'll go back and do the best job I can."
Lescht said this case was politically charged and GSA's response to the Western Regions Conference was to discipline and/or fire everyone without regard to responsibility.
"In the case of Jim Weller, they incorrectly accused him of participating and making decisions that he had nothing to do with. He should not have been removed in the first place," Lescht said. "But the government did so, and when we presented the evidence at the hearing before the administrative judge, you see the conclusion. The conclusion of the judge is that the evidence did not support any of the charges against Jim. We are pleased that the judge saw the evidence for what it was and ruled in Jim's favor."