Though President Donald Trump is expected to leave office in January, not all of his political appointees will follow.
That’s due to a longtime, controversial practice called “burrowing” in which political appointees — whose jobs could easily be nixed by an incoming president — transition to more secure civil service positions, many times within the agencies they once helped lead.
A review by the News4 I-Team found more than a dozen Trump appointees have already “burrowed” into new positions this year alone, joining the rank and file who will serve under President-elect Joe Biden.
They include a high-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, at least seven political appointees in the U.S. Department of Justice and four appointees in the U.S. Department of Interior, among others.
The process of “burrowing” is nothing new and has been used for decades by administrations in both political parties. Under current law, the Office of Personnel Management must examine and sign off on the conversions and is required to report those cases to Congress. If approved, the newly minted civil servants will enjoy stronger job protections than a political appointee.
Still, it’s widely viewed as controversial among political parties and government watchdogs alike. Some critics of the practice say it wrongly allows political operatives to remain inside agencies and question whether it deprives longtime civil servants of the opportunity to advance.
“We are better off with a government that is professionalized, with people chosen because of their qualifications,” said Max Stier, at attorney with the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service, adding: “Typically the number of people burrowing is small, but it’s something we ought to be keeping an eye on.”
Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, acknowledged burrowing has happened under many previous presidents’ administrations. But he said it’s more worrisome now as Trump has floated the idea of running again in 2024.
“They’re political acolytes of the president,” Connolly said. “Are they going to be political operatives of the president embedded in these agencies?”
Documents obtained by the I-Team show the list includes former Trump transition team member Lawrence “Larry” Connell, who was tapped to lead the embattled Washington D.C. VA Medical Center back in 2017.
He then served as chief of staff within the Veterans Health Administration until May of this year, when documents show he was approved for a higher-paying civil service job leading a VA Medical Center hospital in New England.
Connell did not immediately return requests for comment.
In a statement, a VA spokeswoman said Connell was only approved “after going through competitive hiring procedures” and that the VA “coordinates all conversions of current and recent political appointees with the Office of Personnel Management.”
The Justice Department conversions include an Office of Legal Policy official who was approved to serve as a civil trial attorney, a position that came with a $16,000 pay raise, according to the report. That attorney recently handled the Trump administration’s arguments over challenges to the Affordable Care Act.
Spokespeople for the Justice Department and Department of Veterans Affairs told the I-Team the political appointees underwent competitive hiring procedures and approval from the Office of Personnel Management before securing new career civil service positions.
A Justice Department spokeswoman told News 4, “DOJ does not ‘transition’ or transfer political appointees into career status jobs. Instead, individuals are free to apply to job announcements, and if selected based on their qualifications, must undergo the OPM burrowing review to ensure any selections are free of political influence or favoritism.”
“Burrowing” has occurred in the waning months of previous presidential administrations, according to reports by the Government Accountability Office.
A 2017 GAO report, for instance, found that OPM approved 78 of 99 requests submitted between Jan. 1, 2010, and March 17, 2016, when former President Barack Obama was in office. Of those, 69 were ultimately converted to career positions. The GAO also found about 130 cases of “burrowing” during former President George W. Bush’s second term.
In 2016, the GAO recommended procedures by which agencies can better administer cases of “burrowing” appointees and noted, “The ability to convert political appointees to career positions is an appropriate and valuable means of achieving a highly skilled workforce.”