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Former Hawaii state official clears his name 8 years after allegations forced him from federal post

Editor’s note:

Raymond Jefferson studied at the University of Hawaii and served as a deputy director of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism in 2003 and 2004. This article about his exoneration years after allegations drove him from a federal position was first published in the Washington Post on Sept. 24.

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WASHINGTON >> Twice, Raymond Jefferson’s service to his country left him in pain and agony, facing years of recovery.

The first time was in 1995. The West Point grad was an Army officer in Okinawa for Special Forces training. When he realized a defective hand grenade was about to blow, he cupped it in his hand and held it against his leg so the shrapnel would not hit his comrades.

Jefferson lost all five fingers on his left hand.

Another explosion 16 years later was even more unexpected. Two subordinates at the Labor Department, where he was the assistant secretary for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, accused him of procurement improprieties. An inspector general’s report substantiated the allegations, including that he directed govern- ment business to associates.

Jefferson, then a rising star with master’s degrees from Harvard’s Business School and its Kennedy School of Government, was forced to resign. Not only did that end his prestigious career as a Senate-­confirmed, Obama administration political appointee, but the damage to his reputation has followed him since.

Then, after eight tough years, the inspector general exonerated Jefferson.

Following long, dogged and costly work by Jefferson’s legal team, Scott S. Dahl, Labor’s inspector general until June, reversed a predecessor’s earlier findings in an extraordinary Sept. 26, 2019, letter to Jefferson. Regarding each of four accusations against Jefferson, Dahl wrote: “This allegation is not substantiated.”

That same day, a letter from Milton A. Stewart, a Labor deputy assistant secretary for operations, said if former department officials had the information now available they would not have pushed Jefferson from office in July 2011.

Stewart’s letter says, “DOL never took disciplinary action against you.” Yet the letter says that Jefferson was asked to resign. Furthermore, the deputy secretary at the time, Seth Harris, first placed Jefferson on administrative leave, then gave Jefferson four hours to quit or be fired, without allowing him to defend himself, according to a court document filed by Jefferson’s lawyer.

With no apology, with no consideration of the way Jefferson’s forced resignation wrecked his life, Stewart said we “consider this matter closed.”

But how can it ever be closed for Jefferson?

The son of public servants, the grandson of household servants, his case demonstrates the long-lasting trials that await people, in this case a federal employee, who are accused without substantiation. It’s worse in magnitude when the damaging accusations are trumpeted by a senator and articles linger online, including in The Washington Post, The New York Times and Wikipedia, as happened to Jefferson.

“I looked at that and I was in shock,” he recalled about a newspaper article announ- cing his forced resignation.

Nothing compares to having “your name just destroyed, your reputation just completely demolished in writing and especially when you know it’s not true,” Jefferson said in a series of sometimes tearful interviews by Zoom, email, text messages and phone from Singapore. “I’ve struggled over the years to say which was worse, having my hand blown off or going through this. … I think going through this was worse.”

Unlike civil servants, political appointees such as Jefferson can be fired at will. They have no agency due process rights that allow them to challenge management actions against them. Jefferson spent his life savings — at least $400,000, he said — to fight in federal court, beginning with a complaint filed in July 2014.

The Labor Department and its Office of Inspector General violated his constitutional rights by pushing him out “on false grounds and publicizing their bogus findings without due process of law,” one of Jefferson’s briefs alleged. The case was settled with the exoneration letters but no monetary award for Jefferson, said his lawyer, Peter C. Choharis. The government agreed to pay some of his legal fees.

Jefferson’s exoneration, which has not previously been reported, led his former VETS chief of staff, Amit Magdieli, to “reflect a bit on how many more careers were jeopardized in a similar way,” Magdieli said by email. “Ray is a good man. Ray was able to prove his innocence — but it took nearly 10 years and came about through a singular tenacity and at enormous personal financial cost. Most don’t have the stamina or means to do so.”

Jefferson is now 54 and president of a global leadership consultancy based in Singapore.

Scott Gould, a former deputy Veterans Affairs secretary who worked with Jefferson, noted the parallels between when Jefferson lost his job and the period after Jefferson lost his fingers yet “had the grit and determination to figure out how he’s going to rebuild his life. And it took pretty much that same level of grit and determination to get his reputation back.”

Even knowing the risks of being a political appointee, Jefferson would like to serve in another administration, Gould said, adding that desire “is pretty revealing of his character.”

Jefferson’s January 2018 brief alleges that the two people who worked for him at VETS and accused him of misconduct had performance problems.

The complaint also alleged that the Office of Inspector General hid information favorable to Jefferson. It said there were 11 instances where the inspector general’s office “hid facts that decimated” an accuser’s credibility because “the only thing they had to ‘substantiate’ ” certain allegations was the accuser’s statements.

The inspectors “invented a false motive for Jefferson to steer contracts” and “manipulated both the documentary evidence and witness statements to misrepresent the facts,” the brief added. Another brief, in November 2017, said inspectors “violated their own rules more than a dozen times.”

Top Labor Department officials took the inspector general’s report and quickly moved against Jefferson. The day after Harris, the former deputy secretary, received the inspector general’s report, Jefferson alleged that Harris gave Jefferson a redacted version and placed him on administrative leave.

“This was the first time that Jefferson learned that he had been accused of wrongdoing and that OIG had been investigating him,” according to Jefferson’s complaint.

Days later, Jefferson and his lawyer met with Harris by phone and asked for the complete report and for an opportunity to refute its errors and the charges.

“Harris responded by telling Jefferson that he had four hours in which to resign or be fired,” Choharis alleged in the complaint. “When Jefferson’s lawyer protested that Jefferson had a due process right to notice of the charges against him and a fair opportunity to be heard to refute them, Harris told Jefferson: ‘You have no due process right!’ ”

Jefferson was out, submitting his resignation on July 26, 2011, while thinking he could reverse this sudden, error-fueled Twilight Zone-like mystery within a few days.

“At that moment, Jefferson became the highest-­ranking member of the Obama Administration forced to resign under a false ethics scandal,” the complaint alleged. “Jefferson had never before been disciplined or even accused of impropriety in any of his previous positions in the public or private sectors.” Among his many accomplishments, he had been a White House Fellow and a Fulbright Fellow. VETS’ achievements under his leadership were chronicled in a book on government leadership.

Three former inspectors general agreed that it is rare for one to reverse a report’s findings. Glenn A. Fine, who formerly headed inspector general offices at the De-partments of Justice and Defense, said his staff “normally allowed subjects of substantiated investigations of misconduct to respond to the report and to provide any additional information for us to consider,” because that’s fair to the individual and provides “a check to ensure that the OIG has considered all the information and gets the conclusions correct.”

I. Charles McCullough III, a former intelligence community inspector general, said he expects “the relevant congressional committees will show great interest (in Jefferson’s case), and will likely want to conduct their own inquiry.”

Jefferson’s hope to quickly reverse his demise was naive. His nightmare lasted not a few days, but 2,984 — from the day of his resignation to the day of his exon- eration. It was a horrible time for a person who recalls the day his presidential appointment was announced as “a beautiful moment … that was a highlight of my life.”

Former senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked the inspector general to conduct the investigation after receiving a letter from a person who worked for Jefferson.

McCaskill, Harris and Dahl did not reply to questions submitted by email. Current officials in the Labor Department and its inspector general’s office had no comment, nor did the Justice Department, which handled Jefferson’s lawsuit against the government.

When Jefferson quit, McCaskill, then chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight, issued a news release that cited the inspector general’s findings and said Jefferson “circumvented rules and regulations to secure government contracts for friends and colleagues.” She quoted a passage from the report that said he had a “pattern of conduct … which reflects a consistent disregard of federal procurement regulations, federal ethics principles, and the proper stewardship of appropriated dollars.”

The Washington Post quoted her saying “this is the kind of boondoggle that taxpayers have every right to expect would come to a screeching halt.”

Words like these haunt Jefferson to this day, despite his exoneration a year ago. He knows his hope for another presidential appointment could be hampered, because, as Choharis told the court, Jefferson “cannot escape the calumny” of false accusations.

But he has waged a fight, worthy of the Green Beret team leader he was, to make that escape. His battle for exoneration was one step. Changing the false narrative soiling his name is another.

In addition to earlier lost job opportunities, recently he discussed potential membership on a high-powered board of a nonprofit organization promoting veterans. He told an organization official about the allegations and his exoneration letters.

The official believed his innocence, according to Jefferson, but cited his “reputational risk” still driven, a year after his exoneration, by the allegations whenever he is Googled.

“There’s no counter story,” the official told Jefferson.

Until now.

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