OPM Nominee Pledges ‘Nonpartisan’ Governance Despite Anti-Islam, Conspiracy Theorist Views

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here

President Trump’s nominee to lead the federal government’s human resources agency declined to apologize during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for offensive comments he made on Twitter in 2016, but promised that if confirmed, he would run the agency in a “nonpartisan” manner.

John Gibbs, a former software engineer and Christian missionary who has served as a political appointee at the Housing and Urban Development Department since 2017, was asked repeatedly by senators of both parties on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about incendiary tweets accusing the leadership of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign of engaging in satanic rituals and describing the Democratic party as the party of “Islam” and “gender-bending.”

“There have been things that you’ve written in the past which have been disparaging of Islam, and at the same time you have promoted some relatively extreme, if not bizarre or nonsensical, conspiracy theories, including the idea that the leaders of the Democratic party had participated in satanic rituals of some time,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “I wonder, do you believe those things, and if you do, how can those possibly be separated from an HR responsibility to people who represent a wide array of backgrounds?”

“An individual wrote a book and invited someone to a dinner—that is what we know,” Gibbs said, apparently referring to a controversial art installation from Marina Abramovic. “As a political commentator, I reported on that at the time, but that is something that is behind me—that is not my current role. I can assure you that I have led in a nonpartisan fashion over the last three years during my service in government, and if I am confirmed as OPM director, I will continue to lead in a nonpartisan fashion.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked if Gibbs “regretted” stoking anti-Muslim sentiment with his Internet posts before entering government. But Gibbs insisted that as a Black man whose ancestors were slaves, he has experienced discrimination “firsthand” and does not tolerate it in any form.

“I regret that it’s unfortunately become an issue,” Gibbs said. “Like all Americans, I have political opinions that I’ve expressed in the past. But I am proud to say that during my service in government, I’ve always led in a nonpartisan manner. I’ve always treated people fairly, and I’ve never allowed discrimination.”

Given OPM’s need to engage in IT modernization, Gibbs said his top priority in that realm would be improving the agency’s processing of federal employees’ retirement claims, including looking for ways to digitize the records held at the agency’s Boyers, Pa., facility.

“We see that retirement actions are taking a very long time to process, so there are a couple of things I’d like to do,” he said. “First, I’d take a deep dive into the processes currently done by paper, and see how many can go electronically, because that will speed up a lot of processes. The second thing is increasing the use of self-service options. It used to be the case that if you needed to change a password, you’d have to call in to a person and have that person change it for you, but that’s now an automated, self-service system. So we need to look at other things that can be automated and done in a self-service way.”

Good governance groups also have raised concerns about whether Gibbs is committed to the merit systems principles undergirding the nonpartisan civil service. In a letter to the committee, the Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and several other organizations highlighted a tweet in which Gibbs suggested that new hires at federal agencies should be loyal to the president first and foremost.

“Prior to being nominated to lead OPM, Mr. Gibbs enthusiastically supported the idea that new hires should be loyal to President Trump’s political agenda, tweeting that those who aren’t loyal are ‘backstabbers’ and should be screened out of government service,” the groups wrote. “If these values are brought into OPM, it would hamper the agency’s ability to carry out its mandate of ensuring that the federal government makes personnel decisions based on individual merit, not on political favoritism.”

In his testimony, Gibbs appeared to reverse course on his previous statements, saying he would protect employees at OPM from untoward influence and committing to doing his job in a way that is “legal, moral and ethical.”

“I agree that we don’t want any undue political influence on federal employees,” he said. “During my career, I always worked successfully with people from a variety of political backgrounds. I don’t go asking people what their beliefs are, and I assume that they are across the ideological spectrum. At HUD, we have a very good team and I work with them very successfully.”

Gibbs also committed to continuing to strengthen federal agencies’ telework policies, particularly in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and he committed to following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how and when to reopen, rather than the White House.

“We have found [at HUD] that telework has been a very effective experience, that employees who perform well continue to do so under telework,” Gibbs said. “And with the phased approach to reopening, we keep looking at the phases and ensuring that we have proper personal protective equipment and social distance guidelines for employees to follow. We’re already moving to put signage in place and make [personal protective equipment] available so that employees will be coming back to a safe environment, and I will continue the work OPM has done in this area, and make sure that the guidance [documents] we send to agencies are sensitive to the circumstances of that agency.”

The committee is scheduled to hold a vote on whether to recommend Gibbs be confirmed as OPM director on Sept. 16.