Anti-Trump Secret Service Agent Leaving With Pay, Pension

Anti-Trump Secret Service Agent Leaving With Pay, Pension
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Anti-Trump Secret Service Agent Leaving With Pay, Pension
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Michael Cohen once famously said he’d take a bullet for Donald Trump -- even though his position as Trump’s personal lawyer hardly required that type of life-on-the-line loyalty. As things turned out, Cohen didn’t really mean it, but by then his life and livelihood had been torn apart because of his extreme fealty to Trump, which earned him tens of millions of dollars but then backfired in spectacular fashion.

In stark contrast, a senior Secret Service agent whose job is literally to take a would-be assassin’s bullet for the president defiantly told colleagues and friends just a few weeks before the 2016 election that she’d refuse to do any such thing for Trump.

As with Cohen, the agent’s life has been irrevocably changed by her public remarks about Trump. But Kerry O’Grady, the Secret Service agent in question, has emerged from the entire spectacle virtually unscathed financially despite the black mark on her law enforcement reputation.

Although she is leaving the Secret Service, O’Grady appears to have quietly settled a disciplinary action against her and is poised to walk away with her federal government pension intact. In early 2017, shortly after media reports surfaced about her incendiary comments, O’Grady was removed as head of the Secret Service’s Denver field office while her she was investigated for possible misconduct.

She contested the disciplinary measures taken against her and appears to have settled her case with the Department of Homeland Security in October 2017. Before that settlement, she was on paid administrative leave, and afterward remained on either paid or unpaid leave and is set to retire with a taxpayer-funded pension in roughly three weeks, according to sources close to the Secret Service and a public settlement decision between O’Grady and DHS.

Earlier this month, the human resources department of the Secret Service sent an internal notice to all employees announcing O’Grady’s retirement, effective March 20. The notice was then deleted a few days later, fueling agency-wide speculation about O’Grady’s actual status.

A Secret Service spokesperson on Wednesday declined to comment on O’Grady’s retirement plans, saying only that the agency does not discuss personnel matters.

The retirement announcement has again roiled the agency over its handling of the discipline charges against O’Grady, whose case has been followed closely by agents since she first made the incendiary Facebook comments about Trump.

Most fellow agents did not know the outcome of the investigation into O’Grady’s misconduct because there was a shroud of secrecy hanging over it. Several agents and other employees who tried to look up her employment status on an internal Secret Service database of active agents were hauled before higher-ups and warned not to discuss the case in any capacity, numerous sources in the Secret Service community have told RealClearPolitics.

O’Grady’s legal problems began amid an uproar in that community – among active agents and retirees – after she posted several Facebook condemnations of Trump in the weeks before and after he was elected.

In the set of comments that got her into the most trouble, O’Grady posted in October 2016 that she was endorsing Hillary Clinton for president and would surrender her career and freedom rather than defend Trump from assassination.

"As a public servant for nearly 23 years, I struggle not to violate the Hatch Act. So I keep quiet and skirt the median," she wrote. "To do otherwise can be a criminal offense for those in my position. Despite the fact that I am expected to take a bullet for both sides. But this world has changed and I have changed. And I would take jail time over a bullet or an endorsement for what I believe to be disaster to this country and the strong and amazing women and minorities who reside here. Hatch Act be damned. I am with Her."

The statement appeared to transgress on two levels. First, it pledged intentional dereliction of duty. Second, Secret Service employees are among those federal workers subject to enhanced Hatch Act restrictions, which bar executive branch staff (except for the president, vice president and some other senior executive officials) from engaging in certain political activities.

Enhanced Hatch Act employees are specifically prohibited from posting comments to a blog or social media that advocate for or against a partisan political party, candidate or partisan political office or partisan political group. They also may not use email or social media to distribute, send or forward content that advocates for or against a partisan political party, candidate for political office or a partisan group.

At first the agency took no action against her. A complaint had been filed with the agency shortly after O’Grady’s Facebook posts appeared, but Secret Service managers didn’t respond until a story broke in late January 2017, fueling a media firestorm and public backlash against her comments. The premier organization for retired Secret Service agents, the Association of Former Agents of the U.S. Secret Service, also known as Old Star, quickly expelled her from its ranks.

O’Grady was then removed from her position as head of the Denver office but has remained on paid or unpaid administrative leave for more than two years and retained her security clearance, according to knowledgeable sources. Lawyers who have represented Secret Service employees accused of misconduct say many of their clients haven’t been so lucky.

Sean Bigley, a partner at Bigley Ranish, a law firm specializing in federal employment cases and security-clearance denials, said Secret Service managers often impose unpaid leave and revoke security clearances in misconduct cases in order to force a person to quit rather than go through the lengthy appeals process to try to get their security clearance reinstated.

“The Secret Service, when it comes to security clearances, tends to shoot first and ask questions later,” Bigley told RealClearPolitics. “And in every case I’ve had that I can recall, the person has been put on unpaid leave while the investigation is being conducted and while their security clearance is suspended.”

Now, the official retirement notice informing all Secret Service employees that DHS is allowing O’Grady to quietly retire in three weeks is fueling further intra-agency resentment. It’s also raising questions about whether DHS is abiding by a new law designed to stop the once common practice of allowing problem federal employees to remain on paid or unpaid leave long enough to hit key retirement dates.

O'Grady in recent months boasted to other agents that she "beat" the agency's misconduct charges and that she planned to retire within the next 60 to 90 days when she reaches a key milestone date, the sources told RealClearPolitics.

Congressional leaders have recently faulted DHS for the use of paid and unpaid leave to allow employees facing substantiated claims of misconduct to remain long enough to attain full retirement benefits.

Just days before leaving his role as Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley released the results of a nearly four-year investigation of the U.S. Marshals Service, into which a flood of Secret Service agents have transferred in recent years. The probe, he said, uncovered a culture of misconduct that echoed similar problems his committee and others have uncovered at the Secret Service.

Among myriad management problems, the new report specifically criticized the Marshals Service for allowing employees with substantiated misconduct to remain on paid or unpaid leave long enough to reach retirement.

“We found a culture of mismanagement, abuse of authority and lax accountability that started clear at the top and has set a terrible standard for other employees across the agency,” the longtime Iowa senator said.

Along with Grassley, several taxpayer watchdog groups have also taken issue with the questionable practices.

“Any federal employee who breaches the public trust through poor performance or unethical behavior should be subject to a fair but swift termination process,” said Curtis Kalin, a spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste. “Any attempt to skirt the disciplinary process for the purpose of extracting pension benefits should be exposed and halted.” 

Debra D’Agostino, a founding partner of the Federal Practice Group, which specializes in federal employment law, suggested that O’Grady may have had unrelated legal grievances with the Secret Service that allowed her to remain at the agency on paid or unpaid leave for roughly a year and a half after her October 2017 settlement.

“These days, that’s really an extraordinary amount of time” to remain an employee after a settlement without coming back to work in some capacity, D’Agostino said.

Additionally, O’Grady can start collecting a pension immediately after retiring if she hits the 25-year mark of her service. Her precise age is not known, but knowledgeable sources say she is in her upper 40s and nearing that 25-year anniversary with the agency. Certain federal law enforcement jobs, including the Secret Service, allow employees to start collecting retirement immediately if they leave the agency after 25 years or more.

The official Secret Service retirement notice says O’Grady is retiring at a GS13 federal pay grade, which suggests that the agency downgraded her from a GS15, her pay grade before the misconduct charges. All agents who hold the top position in a Secret Service field office must hold the rank of GS15, which she did, according to multiple sources in the Secret Service community.

As an employee in her first few years at the GS15 paygrade, O’Grady likely made between $105,000 and $120,000 annually, before any overtime, according to federal pay scales. Although she was knocked down to a GS13, putting her in the $85,000 to $100,000 range, that pay scale likely only applied for the time since her settlement. That punishment also likely wouldn’t substantially impact the value of her pension, which is based on an employee’s three highest salary years at the agency. By the time she turns 70, it’s likely that the taxpayers will have paid O'Grady more in total salary after she declared publicly that she wouldn’t do her duty than in all the years before.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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