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U.S. Civil Servants on Paid Leave in Limbo

Washington — Paul Brachfeld, the inspector general for the National Archives, plans to ring in the new year with his wife with a relaxed visit to their vacation home near Bethany Beach, Del. In October, the couple took a cruise to Puerto Rico. Brachfeld runs every morning in Silver Spring, Md., hikes with Spree, his Jack Russell terrier, in the woods most afternoons and catches up with his adult daughters in the evening. All while collecting his $186,000 government salary.

These days, his life seems like one long vacation. The veteran watchdog for the historical records agency is entering his fourth month on paid time off, one of an unspecified number of federal employees who are collecting paychecks and benefits to do ... nothing. At least nothing to advance the immediate interests of the government.

Brachfeld, 54, was put on paid administrative leave in September after an employee on his staff accused him of misconduct. He has not yet been interviewed by the panel that investigates complaints against inspectors general. It meets just four times a year.

Cases like his, in which a civil servant is accused of breaking rules, can go on for months and even years. Some involve accusations of cut-and-dried misconduct — threatening violence, for example — that lead to paid leave while the case is investigated. Other employees are caught up in more ambiguous circumstances, like blowing the whistle on wrongdoing or filing a complaint of employment discrimination.

In a system that rarely fires people, no one can say how many are on paid administrative leave. It’s one number the government apparently doesn’t track.

“It’s the federal government’s dirty little secret, how much they do it,” said Debra D’Agostino, founding partner of the Federal Practice Group, an employment law firm.

Brachfeld, who was put on leave by the Archives chief after a dispute with an agent on his staff, said he was “placed under virtual home detention” based on “untested smears” to which he has not been able to respond. The agent claims the inspector general altered audits, used vulgar language and gave CBS News’s 60 Minutes sensitive information before its release was authorized.

There are 64 reasons listed in the “Administrative Leave/Excused Absence” section of the Office of Personnel Management rule book that officially allow government employees paid time off. They range from giving blood to attending a Boy or Girl Scout jamboree. And then there are the Brachfelds of the federal world, who are paid to do nothing or banished to perform telework with the kind of flexible schedule in which no meaningful assignments materialize.

The status is not, as some critics of public-sector workers might conclude, a day at the beach — Brachfeld actually had to put in for vacation time to get his.

“I’ve had clients on paid leave for long periods of time who absolutely hated it,” said William Bransford, general counsel for the Senior Executives Association, which represents 7,000 government executives. “The perception that’s spun is that this is a paid vacation. But employees want to know what’s going to happen to them as quickly as anybody else.”

Getting paid not to work supposedly requires close supervision by managers. It means moving up the General Schedule pay scale, accruing a pension and vacation and sick days until you’re either fired or cleared to return to the office. While they’re not working, idled employees are not allowed to take another job.

No one can say how many cases drag on. The stories of six people put on administrative leave gives some insight into how the system works for some.

Blake DeVolld, a civilian Air Force intelligence officer, was stripped of his top- secret security clearance in 2006 after his ex-wife, in a bitter divorce, told the FBI she had found 15 classified pages in a box in his basement.

For three years, while he was under investigation, DeVolld, 52, scanned personnel records into a computer in a glass-enclosed room at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center in Springfield, Ohio. Then he was suspended without pay for two more years.

After six years, the Air Force exonerated him last June and reinstated his clearance.

“They can put you in this status and leave you in there forever,” he said of the 1,000 days he drew a $93,000 salary to push papers.