Education Department threatens to suspend employee who provided The Post with budget data

By Valerie Strauss September 11 at 6:30 PM

The U.S. Education Department is proposing a five-day suspension for a budget analyst who provided information to The Washington Post about the Trump administration’s 2017 budget proposal before it was released, according to a letter sent to the employee. Her attorney says it is retaliation for whistleblowing.

Rebecca Delaney, an analyst in the Education Department’s Office of Finance and Operations since 2016, received a letter dated Aug. 30 from the director of the Budget Service telling her about the proposed suspension. The letter, which noted that she admitted to providing the information to the press, said Delaney knew the data was “subject to an embargo” and that it is “uncouth or unprofessional” to violate the embargo. It accused her of “conduct unbecoming a federal employee.”

The Education Department did not respond to requests for comment. Delaney declined to comment. The copy of the letter obtained by The Post has the name of the budget director redacted, but he is identified on the department website as Larry Kean. He did not respond to a request to comment.

Washington Post officials declined to comment.

Delaney’s attorney, Cathy Harris, said in a statement: “This is one of the starkest examples of direct retaliation for whistleblowing that I have seen. The Department of Education is threatening to suspend an employee for blowing the whistle, which is wholly protected under the law. The Department should be thanking Ms. Delaney for her courage, not retaliating against her for exercising her right to blow the whistle by contacting the press about what she saw as gross mismanagement by public officials.”

Harris has asked the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to issue a stay of any disciplinary action against Delaney, saying in a Sept. 5 letter: “It could not be more stark: the Department of Education charged that Ms. Delaney committed ‘conduct unbecoming a federal employee’ solely because she disclosed information to the press, and later to Congress, OSC [Office of Special Counsel] and others, that Ms. Delaney reasonably believed constituted gross mismanagement.”

The stay request says Delaney took the action she did in May 2017 “because she reasonably believed that the information in the budget was inaccurate, misleading.” It also said, “The budget information was under ‘embargo’ at the time but there was no policy prohibiting its release. Ms. Delaney was concerned that the budget summary contained significant errors and misleading wording, and was dishonest.”

The letter sent to Delaney does not specify whether the proposed five-day suspension would be paid or unpaid.

In 2018, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asked her department’s Office of Inspector General whether there were grounds to prosecute employees who leaked budget data to The Post and unclassified information to Politico.

An internal department report said it would be difficult because the department has “little” written policy or guidance on how employees are supposed to handle information. It recommended implementing policies and training to make it easier to punish future leakers. But it also said in a footnote that any new policies should “take into consideration whistleblower rights and protections,” because there “may be times when what may be viewed as a ‘leak’ or an unauthorized release of non-public information could involve a protected disclosure.”

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