Report: State Department employee wrongly removed from job

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department employee working on Iranian policy was improperly removed from her post by officials who took into account her ethnic background, perceived political views and prior role in the Obama administration, according to a report Thursday from the agency’s inspector general.

The internal watchdog’s report recommends internal discipline for officials involved in removing the employee in the early days of the Trump administration. The State Department says it disagrees with the inspector general’s conclusions, but has made changes, including developing a training course on professionalism.

The report was issued amid a House impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump focused in part on the administration’s decision to recall the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine for what the diplomat has said were unfair political reasons, and as multiple State Department officials have publicly complained that they were cut out of policy discussions while the White House pursued its own agenda.

Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who had worked for the State Department since 2012, was assigned in July 2016 to a one-year stint in the agency’s office of policy planning. But officials grew concerned the following March when a website called Conservative Review published an article identifying the employee as a “trusted Obama aide” who had been an architect for that administration’s agreement aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

That article was forwarded to department officials at least four times, the report said, and her detail in the policy planning office was cut short in April 2017 — several months short of the intended end date.

Edward Lacey, the deputy director of policy planning, is described in the report as telling a colleague that the article highlights the “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda” who were on the staff. He said he had already “succeeded in ousting five.”

Another official, Julia Haller, wrote in a separate email: “As background, she worked on the Iran Deal, specifically works on Iran … was born in Iran and upon my understanding cried when the President won.”

The official, Julia Haller, the acting White House liaison, said that she added the comment about Nowrouzzadeh’s place of birth because she thought it could raise conflict of interest questions since Nowrouzzadeh was assigned to work on Iran policy. She also said her characterization of Nowrouzzadeh’s reaction to Trump’s win was likely based on office gossip but that she included it because she thought it went to questions of loyalty.

Nowrouzzadeh said in a statement Thursday that she hoped the report would “prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct by members of this or any future administration

“It is my hope that the Inspector General’s findings pertaining to my case help prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct by members of this or any future administration,” the statement said. “For nearly 15 years, I’ve been proud to serve our country, across Republican and Democratic administrations. I continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, to consider public service to our nation and to not be discouraged by these findings.”

According to the report, Nowrouzzadeh at one point forwarded a copy of the Conservative Review article to Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, describing it as misinformation and saying she wanted to potentially correct the record. She later met with him and said she had received threats. She said Hook said “virtually nothing” in response to the concerns. Hook told the inspector general that he told her that such scrutiny was to be expected while working on high-profile matters and that she should ignore it

In his own detailed response attached to the report, Hook wrote that he did not take into account any improper factors when he made the decision to reassign Nowrouzzadeh. He said he selected his own expert for the position based on qualifications, as he was entitled to do.

“When I decided three days into my job to meet with the Candidate, 1 did not know Employee One’s political beliefs, her service in the Bush and Obama Administrations, or her national origin,” Hook wrote. “I did not care. This is true not only for Employee One but for every person I inherited on the Policy Planning staff and for every person I have ever worked with during 12 years of Federal public service.”

The inspector general found no wrongdoing in the reassignment of two other employees and made no conclusion in two other cases it examined.

In a letter attached to the report, State Department counselor Ulrich T. Brechbuhl said that “despite disagreeing with your conclusion regarding improper considerations playing a role in the early termination of a detail,” the department has created a training course meant to promote teamwork and unity, and is considering whether disciplinary action is needed for employees who broke protocol.

The report is the second by the inspector general on the topic of political retaliations at the State Department since August. The earlier report found that Kevin Moley, assistant secretary of state for international organizations, and a top aide, Marie Stull, had routinely disparaged career employees for their perceived political opinions and work for the previous administration.

Stull had left the department by the time the report was released. Moley, who denied any wrongdoing, was not disciplined beyond counseling but announced last month that he would be retiring effective Nov. 29.

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