A government watchdog is assessing allegations of retaliation against State Department employees after CNN reported last week that multiple staffers had retained attorneys to represent them over concerns they had been assigned to low-level jobs because of their involvement in executing policies that are unpopular with the current administration.
The issue drew attention from key Democratic lawmakers, who wrote a letter urging the agency's independent inspector general to conduct an "immediate review" of personnel practices after being contacted by whistleblowers who corroborated the CNN report.
Sarah Breen, a spokeswoman for the State Department Inspector General's office, told CNN the office received the letter and was "conducting preliminary work at this time" to "assess the allegations."
"Our staffs have been made aware of credible allegations that the State Department has required high-level career civil servants, with distinguished records, serving administrations of both parties, to move to performing tasks outside their area of substantive expertise," Reps. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, wrote in the letter sent Friday to the State Department's inspector general.
"At the very least, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars," they wrote. "At worst it may constitute impermissible abuse and retaliation."
On Friday, CNN reported on a string of recent complaints filed by senior and mid-level State Department officials alleging they had been sidelined after their departments were eliminated or reduced.
These include a former Marine who previously led inter-agency delegations to negotiate transfers of dozens of Guantanamo detainees and worked on the National Security Council, but was recently moved to the State Department's Freedom of Information Act task force, where he was assigned data entry and research alongside interns and civil service employees more than 10 levels below his rank of GS-14.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told CNN last week that the agency was taking an "all hands on deck" approach to clearing a backlog of FOIA requests.
"Those helping with FOIA requests have a range of skills and backgrounds, from interns to deputy assistant secretaries," Nauert said. "The assignments are temporary -- some staffing the office are simply between assignments as they determine their next step."