How white Trump appointees targeted a top Black civilian in the Pentagon and fired him

Part Two: Why this man lost his top Pentagon civilian job

By Alicia Mundy
October 25, 2020 6:27PM (UTC)
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(Getty/Salon)

Read more articles from the DCReport here.

This is the second of two articles about the firing of Pentagon official Warren S. Whitlock. In Part One, we showed how racists in the Trump administration targeted the career public servant and dismissed him without a pension or health care.

Warren S. Whitlock, the federal civilian officer assigned to get the U.S. Army moving on racial diversity issues, was fired after two secret, unauthorized investigations.

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The firing was justified by the Army because of one erroneous keystroke on his Army computer. In a statement the Army defended the firing without addressing any of the misconduct DCReport uncovered.

Whitlock never got a chance to defend himself before he was fired in January 2019. In part that was because a Trump appointee covered up the improper nature of one of the investigations by requesting retroactive approval. No one told Whitlock he was the subject of so-called 15-6 investigations, named for an Army regulation number. Army officers and civilians dread the 15-6 as a career killer. Only when he was about to be fired did Whitlock learn of the secret investigations and months of secret machinations against him.

Whitlock, with degrees from Princeton and Columbia, had a successful career as a diversity officer in the federal Transportation Department. He took on challenging assignments others believed were impossible and produced success. He was asked to become one of the Army's highest-ranking Black civilians during the waning days of the Obama administration to shake up what the Obama people considered an underperforming equal opportunity and diversity office. He tackled problems that had languished since George Herbert Walker Bush was commander in chief three decades ago.

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But then the racist Trump administration came in. Twice, Whitlock was the subject of secret investigations as both his boss and a subordinate worked to oust him.

The first investigation was over arrangements for the annual Black Engineer of the Year Award. Whitlock's civilian boss, Diane Randon, questioned his choice of a highly qualified and retiring Army lieutenant colonel for the award. Randon also singled out Whitlock in quietly directing her subordinates to keep tabs on comings and goings.

Undercut by a subordinate

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A secret report by a two-star general severely criticized Whitlock. But it also showed that one award's package was submitted late because Seema Salter, a subordinate who despised Whitlock and behind his back called him a "motherfucker," had delayed getting her own award paperwork to Whitlock. There is no record of an investigation into why the subordinate delayed her actions and whether she did so to undermine her boss, whom she later bragged, testimony showed,  she had gotten removed.

Another subordinate absolved Whitlock. Margo Barfield, Whitlock's assistant, told him and Randon in a meeting in late 2017 that she was to blame for the problems in planning and arranging the Black Engineer of the Year award at the beginning of the year.

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Barfield said she was "completely" responsible, Whitlock testified at his 2019 racial discrimination hearing. That contradicted Randon, who held only Whitlock at fault and used that assertion to arrange the unauthorized investigation.

Randon told the Army inspector general that she was disappointed in Whitlock's leadership because he didn't offer to take responsibility for what she called Barfield's error. Gratuitously, Randon added in the interview that she was "wanting Mr. Whitlock to just throw himself on a grenade…"

After Whitlock was fired his lawyer, David Shapiro, said Randon's conduct was reprehensible. He told DCReport that the secret monitoring of Whitlock's time and attendance ordered by Randon was "racist."

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Boss fails to review performance

Randon's duties included evaluating Whitlock's performance. But Randon failed to do the mandatory mid-year evaluation in 2017 which, assuming she found his performance wanting, would have officially set in motion training and counseling that could have preserved Whitlock's job. Instead, her first evaluation, filed Nov. 28, 2017, gave him a 1, the lowest possible rating on a scale of 1 to 5 used for Senior Executive Service civil servants.

"I was floored.  No one gets a 1," Whitlock said. Pentagon officials said they could not find another example of a Senior Executive Service member given that bottom score.

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Before Randon's evaluation, Whitlock had been consistently graded a 4, including his first evaluation at the Pentagon in late 2016 when Barack Obama was still president.

What made Randon's negative rating all the more surprising was that in December, 2016, just six months after his arrival at the Pentagon, Whitlock succeeded in fulfilling one of his primary tasks. He resolved a problem that had been moldering for decades. He announced the official revision and publication of updates to the oldest of four outdated equal opportunity regulations. The one was from 1988.  "That should have been cause for celebration," said Whitlock, as well as something to impress his new boss, Randon, who arrived the next month.

A year later, in December 2017, while Whitlock fulminated over the lousy job rating Randon gave him, and still unaware he was the focus of the two secret investigations, Army lawyers determined that Randon as investigating officer had "exceeded the scope of the investigation by investigating Mr. Whitlock without notifying" the Army inspector general.

Trump appointee covers up

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 "It was ascertained that the AR 15-6 investigation… was never approved by the appointing authority," the lawyers wrote. Their findings became moot because of a curious action by Raymond T. Horoho, whom Donald Trump had named acting assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Personnel, the Army's top civilian for personnel.

In September 2017, Horoho wrote a memo to the judge advocate general's office, providing cover for Randon.

Horoho requested "approval to designate Ms. Diane Randon as the approval officer for the subject investigation as an exception to Army Regulation" requiring advance approval by her superiors. Horoho noted that she had "appointed" the investigation months earlier on March 15, 2017. In effect, Horoho wanted approval to back-date the unauthorized first investigation and a second unauthorized probe, the kind of rules abuse that has been common in the Trump administration.

The request mattered if Randon was to be let off the hook. So what discipline was meted out to Randon for arranging an unauthorized investigation? The white woman's behavior was thoroughly reviewed and addressed with a "teach and train memorandum" sent to Randon.

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Meanwhile, Whitlock had no idea he had been investigated, no idea what General Leslie Purser had concluded in her investigative report and thus had no opportunity to challenge the negative findings of his performance. "I was a dead man walking and I was the only person who did not know it," he said three years later.

In January 2018 Whitlock filed a racial discrimination complaint against Randon, still unaware of the 15-6 investigation and report, but upset over what he regarded as her foul treatment of him.

Unequal treatment

There was one more crisis developing that would seal Whitlock's fate. This involved the subordinate who had delayed the award paperwork, Seema Salter, and her good friend, another old-timer in the Army equal opportunity office, Spurgeon Moore.

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Moore's wife Patricia entered hospice care. Moore applied for the government's Voluntary Leave Transfer Program on Oct. 30, 2018. If granted, it would allow him almost unlimited paid leave to spend with his wife in her final days. The leave time costs taxpayers nothing because federal employees donate their own leave hours.

Moore's wife died the next day. Her death ended his eligibility for the voluntary leave program. However, her death made him eligible for another benefit, the Army Bereavement Leave.

Despite this, four days after Patricia Moore's death his request for the donated leave-time program was approved. The approval was signed by his longtime friend and colleague Salter, even though she lacked authority to approve the request. It should have been signed by Whitlock, as Moore's superior, under Army regulations. Whitlock knew nothing of the improper approval.

"Spurgeon should have dropped" voluntary leave application, Whitlock said, "and applied for the military's bereavement leave."

Ordered back to work

Bereavement leave would have entitled Moore to about a month off, plus extra days for memorial services and administrative details. Whitlock said Moore basically disappeared."I didn't see him in the office November or December, though I would hear he came in several times when I wasn't there," Whitlock said. He added he sent numerous emails and left voicemails. "It looked like he was ducking my calls."

Despite repeated attempts, Moore could not be reached for comment.

Moore let Randon and Salter know he planned to delay his return until after his wife's burial at Arlington Cemetery. Because of a burial backlog that was not expected until early March, more than four months after his wife's death. Whitlock noted that this was far in excess of what he was entitled to under bereavement leave.

Around Valentine's Day, after discussing the situation with both an Army personnel office and with Trump appointee Horoho, Whitlock sent Moore a formal "return to duty" notice.

Randon undercuts Whitlock

Randon quickly tried to get that notice rescinded, she later confirmed under oath. She also barraged Whitlock with emails and phone calls asking what he was doing and to withdraw the return to duty notice, according to testimony during the merit systems board hearing.

Randon testified Moore advised her that he was not emotionally stable enough to return to work. She added that Horoho, who had approved the return to work notice, also was worried about Moore. What Horoho, who was later relieved of his job for unrelated reasons, actually thought is unknown because he was never called to testify.

Meanwhile, at the Army personnel office, the staff that regularly handled requests for voluntary leave became aware an employee in the Army Diversity and Leadership Office was still on extended voluntary leave to help with his wife's hospice care event though she had died more than two months earlier.

Salter's "illegal" signing

Vieanna Huertas, chief of the Civilian Human Resources Agency division, testified she was surprised to discover that Salter had signed Moore's special leave request for two reasons. The first was that Salter lacked authority to approve the request. The second was that Salter signed after the date of death.

Huertas was blunt about Salter's actions. The approval was "illegal," a "falsification" of official records. When Moore's family "emergency had ended… he should have been taken off of the program."

Meanwhile, Salter's annual performance rating was upgraded to the highest possible level even though she had improperly signed off on Moore's extended leave. Whitlock signed the document, telling DCReport he did so at Randon's insistence.

Discrimination claim

A month earlier, on Jan. 5, 2018, Whitlock had filed his racial discrimination complaint. Federal law was supposed to shield him from retaliation while his case was pending.

Nonetheless, in March 2018, a month after he tangled with Randon over Moore's leave and return to duty notice, Whitlock was suddenly reassigned by Trump's then deputy secretary of the Army, Ryan McCarthy, to a job at Fort McNair in Washington, across the Potomac River from the Pentagon. Whitlock and David Shapiro, his lawyer, said it was punitive and retaliatory since he had no significant or relevant duties at the Center for Military History.

Horoho's office, after work on a Friday, directed Whitlock to meet Horoho at the Pentagon on Monday morning at 8:30. Horoho personally handed Whitlock his transfer notice, which was dated the previous Friday. Whitlock immediately left for Fort McNair. He arrived just as a call from Horoho's office advised Fort McNair officials of Whitlock's transfer.

Barred from his old office

When Whitlock went to his Pentagon office to retrieve personal effects, including medical records and legal documents, he was stopped. "I was called into and excoriated by another Trump appointee who said I was never to come back into the Pentagon."

Six months after his transfer, in September 2018, Whitlock received a formal notice of proposed termination. The stated reasons were "lack of candor" and "conduct unbecoming an Army senior executive." Whitlock was still unaware of the general's report.

In December, he received the formal proposal of removal. Under its terms, Whitlock wouldn't just lose his Army job; he was to be removed from the federal Senior Executive Service just a few years short of eligibility for a pension.

While Whitlock was twiddling his thumbs at Fort McNair, the Army appointed someone to his old job promoting diversity. It was Spurgeon Moore who became, in an acting capacity, "Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Army for Diversity" —Whitlock's old job. Evidently taking advantage of a special leave time program for which Moore was ineligible was of no consequence compared with Whitlock's one mistaken keystroke.

Fired

On January 9, 2019,  Whitlock was terminated. The Trump administration simply ignored the law that's supposed to protect people who file a credible claim of racial discrimination.

Whitlock said he was devastated. He was too embarrassed to tell his aged mother. She was also a Columbia University graduate who retired after a distinguished career at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Whitlock didn't contact former Obama appointees at the Pentagon for advice, either.  "I decided I was going to fight this. I had been a hard worker, I accomplished difficult things, I was honest.  I didn't even get the basic official counseling sessions or reprimands or anything that would give me a chance to resign first."

Weeks later, in February 2019, the next annual Black Engineer of the Year Award conference was held in Washington. Among those attending was a much higher level official than Whitlock—Clarence Johnson, director of the Defense Department Diversity Center.

Johnson testified at Whitlock's hearings that Salter went around introducing Spurgeon Moore as her new boss. Johnson said Salter bragged about her success in getting a boss she liked to replace Whitlock. "I got the other motherfucker back."

Salter testified later that she didn't say that at that event.

In June 2019 the Merit Systems Protection Board judge finally heard testimony. Whitlock's lawyer, David Shapiro had warned him that board judges almost never deny the government's position. The system, set up originally to shield whistleblowers, has morphed over time into a legal sword that effectively thwarts federal workers who challenge their bosses.

Sure enough, the administrative judge ruled for the Army. She said that she didn't find Whitlock's defense that he accidentally emailed Salter's draft evaluation "credible." She said nothing about the severe penalty of discharge over a keystroke.

Appeal to district court

An Army spokesperson characterized the hearing as "a full and open" forum which "found that Mr. Whitlock engaged in the charged misconduct of Lack of Candor on multiple occasions and Conduct Unbecoming an Army Senior Executive.  The Judge also found that his claims of discrimination and retaliation were unproven."

While the statement said "the Army stands by the decision of the Judge" concerning Whitlock it was silent about the extensive wrongdoing by others that DCReport identified.

The Army said nothing about whether it would look the other way or would order a vigorous and independent investigation into the falsification of documents, two unauthorized investigations, inconsistent testimony, approval of leave time by someone lacking authority, approval of leave time under a program that was not available and the improper taking of tens of thousands of dollars of Voluntary Leave that was generously donated by government employees and used by the man who, thanks in part to Whitlock's antagonists, was put in Whitlock's old job. These matters all violate Army regulations and could form the basis for prosecutions.

That is, to be clear, an incomplete list of the serious wrongs DCReport found right in the public record.

Whitlock has exercised his right to appeal the administrative law judge's decision and go to trial in federal district court.

In early 2020, the Army tried to have Whitlock's case moved from the mostly Black and heavily Democratic District of Columbia to Northern Virginia, where juries have been shown again and again to be very government-friendly. Indeed, it is the government's preferred jurisdiction in terrorism cases because its pool of potential jurors lean strongly in favor of whatever position the government asserts.

In court papers, the Army argued that transferring the Whitlock case is proper because when Whitlock was fired he worked at the Pentagon, which is in Virginia.

That's not true. Documents in evidence show clearly that Whitlock was posted to Fort McNair in the District of Columbia. Shapiro is opposing any transfer out of the district.

While his case drags on, Whitlock has managed to maintain a sense of humor.

In August, Whitlock received an email from the company sponsoring the 35th annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards to be held in February 2021. It was a reminder that he should submit nominations.

Whitlock laughed.


Alicia Mundy

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dcreport Diane Randon Investigation Trump Administration Warren S. Whitlock