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Federal Staffer Links Politics, Demotion

Hearing: Agriculture Department employee testified that his and others' reassignments were reportedly based on partisanship, not merit.

September 25, 1996|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Chris Niedermayer, an 18-year Agriculture Department employee, told a House committee Tuesday that he was informed shortly after the 1992 election that he was being transferred to a less desirable position "because of politics"--even though Civil Service rules require that career positions be awarded strictly on merit.

Niedermayer's name later appeared on a list compiled by supervisors of employees who "should be removed from current position as soon as possible," many of whom were Republicans. He was not alone: An overwhelming majority of those mentioned with him suffered a similar fate.

The testimony came during a hearing on alleged political influence in the nation's major domestic farm subsidy program--then known as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service--before and after the 1992 election. The lawmakers examined fund-raising by federal career employees at their workplace and whether political donations were linked to employment benefits--activities prohibited by law.

Earlier this month, three former and one current career supervisor in the department pleaded guilty to conspiring to promise co-workers and subordinates job considerations in exchange for their donations to the Democratic Farmers & Ranchers '92 Political Action Committee.

"Not only does this conduct demoralize civil servants, it also threatens the public's confidence that USDA programs will be administered fairly, without regard to politics," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on department operations, nutrition and foreign agriculture, which conducted the hearing.

In other testimony, politically appointed managers in the agency--now part of the consolidated Farm Service Agency--denied that they considered partisan allegiance when they made important Civil Service appointments.

Farm Service Agency Administrator Grant B. Buntrock, the conduit for the PAC money when he served as an executive with a national farm advocacy group, recalled discussing the political action committee at his office with two of those who admitted to misdemeanor charges stemming from the fund-raising and others in mid-1992. But he said that he never encouraged them to solicit funds from colleagues.

After his appointment, Buntrock said, the donations had no impact on any job moves.

"You don't buy jobs for $50 and $100," he insisted, alluding to the amounts of some of the contributions. "That isn't the way it works. You do it on merit."

Niedermayer, 40, said that he was switched from a position as a senior administrator with "an agencywide span of control and authority" to a post "with no authority." Overall, 15 of the 18 employees whose names appeared on the list with him were reassigned, said James M. Lager, a lawyer who investigated the fund-raising scheme for the Agriculture Committee.

At the same time, most of those identified on a separate list as "reliable and competent Democrats" were awarded promotions or more visible and influential posts. Many had contributed to the Farmers and Ranchers committee.

K. Rashid Nuri, former deputy administrator for management, acknowledged in testimony that he may have told Niedermayer that his job switch was because of politics but he said that he was referring to "politics in the workplace," not partisan differences.

Asked to respond to sworn statements from two other agriculture employees who said that Nuri had referred to a list of suspected Republicans when he told them of new assignments, Nuri said: "I never received a list."

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