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By Kathryn Watson
James McCaffery lied about earning two Purple Heart medals for decades to rise through the federal ranks ranks and hop from federal agency to federal agency, somehow eluding termination each time.
A new Department of the Interior (DOI) Office of Inspector General (IG) report lays out the jaw-dropping tale of McCaffery, most recently a DOI deputy director, who managed to land increasingly prestigious jobs in the armed forces and at various civil service agencies by fabricating his military record.
McCaffery’s story is one of dishonesty, agency failure to communicate, and top officials ignoring misdeeds instead of punishing them.
But, as is common in federal investigations, McCaffery managed to retire from the federal government before the IG completed its investigation, on Nov. 30 of last year.
He may never be held accountable.
McCaffery’s lies began in 1992, when the IG said he falsely listed the Bronze Star for valor in combat, the Master Parachute Badge with a combat device, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, and the Legion of Merit, in addition to the two fictitious Purple Heart medals, on his certificate of release from active Army duty.
He joined the Army Reserve the following year in 1993, and took a job as a GS-7 contract specialist for the U.S. Department of Navy, using a veteran hiring preference based on his falsified medals, according to the IG. (RELATED: Here Are Five Ways Trump Can Strip The Government Of Waste And #DrainTheSwamp)
Someone caught onto McCaffery’s lies, and the Army launched an investigation into his falsified medals in 1999, according to the IG. But McCaffery somehow resigned his Army reserve commission, with a dishonorable discharge.
The Navy learned of McCaffery’s dishonesty in 2001, and told him it planned to revoke his security clearance, the IG said.
But McCaffery duped federal officials again.
He applied to be a contract specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a GS-12 position that didn’t require security clearance. McCaffery lied on his application, claiming he never left a job because he would otherwise be fired, according to the IG.
McCaffery worked at USGS in various roles until 2006, when he joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as chief of the acquisition branch, a GS-14 position.
McCaffery next took a Special Executive Service (SES) position — the highest non-presidentially appointed role in the federal government — with DOI’s PAM as its deputy director in December 2012. That job required a public trust background investigation, which he failed.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) investigated McCaffery, compiled records of his dishonesty, and presented those to his boss at DOI, PAM Director Debra Sonderman, in 2013. BSEE recommended that Sonderman punish McCaffery, and possibly fire him.
But Sonderman ignored those warnings, saying she believed he had changed, the IG said.
“She chose neither to remove nor discipline him, nor to consult with her supervisor, despite the recommendation for removal from both the human resources and security offices,” the IG said.
The IG did not suggest any further actions against Sonderman, and DOI did not immediately have an answer as to whether Sonderman will face consequences. Sonderman did not respond to a request for comment when TheDCNF called the number listed for her on DOI’s website.
McCaffery, in his interview with the IG, admitted to fabricating his military awards and wrongly claiming a veteran’s preference to better his employment odds.
It’s unclear what pension McCaffery will receive in retirement.
Firing a federal employee is rare, as TheDCNF has reported. The odds of a federal employee being fired in a given year are one-in-500, compared with one-in-77 for private-sector workers. (RELATED: Here’s Why It’s All But Impossible To Fire A Fed)
McCaffery’s story is reminiscent of the infamous John Beale, a former Environmental Protect Agency employee who was convicted for skipping work and stealing $900,000 by pretending to have a second job as a CIA operative.
If the U.S. Senate confirms Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke as the next secretary of the interior, he will have some prerogative to make it easier to fire DOI employees.