Wednesday federal headlines – May 14, 2014

The Morning Federal Newscast is a daily compilation of the stories you hear Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp discuss throughout the show each day. The Newscast is designed to give users more information about the stories you hear on the air.

  • The labor union representing Veterans Affairs employees says recent claims of mismanagement at VA health clinics are no surprise. The American Federation of Government Employees says the VA has created a “culture of fear” that discourages employees from reporting mismanagement. The union says whistleblowers have faced retaliation and intimidation when they tried to alert union representatives to problems with extended wait times for patients or other barriers to care. The union says the department should cut middle management and shift resources to the front-line health workers. (American Federation of Government Employees)
  • The St. Louis VA hospital becomes the latest to face claims of forcing veterans to wait too long for treatment. The former chief of psychiatry says patients often wait a month or more for mental health services. Dr. Jose Mathews tells the Associated Press he was demoted after filing a whistleblower complaint last year. He claimed each psychiatrist could see a dozen patients a day but typically was seeing just six. Missouri’s senators are demanding details from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. (Associated Press)
  • The IRS paid at least $13 billion in improper tax credits last year. The agency estimates it got wrong about a quarter of all Earned Income Tax Credit payments. Those are supposed to go to low-income working families who pay little or no federal income tax. The nature of the credit makes it susceptible to fraud. The numbers come out in a new report by the inspector general. It estimates that the IRS has made at least $124 billion in improper payments since 2003. (Associated Press)
  • The White House updates its Open Data Plan by picking 40 new data sets to be released publicly. The move comes on the first anniversary of the plan. The policy calls for government data to be made available in machine-readable formats. The revised plan calls for agencies to tune in to their data users, and making sure the most-wanted data sets are released first. Staff at the General Services Administration will conduct data usability tests and solicit feedback from the public. Round 3 Presidential Innovation Fellows will work on data projects involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Census Bureau and IRS. (Federal News Radio)
  • Don’t count the money yet, but the Office of Personnel Management is accepting nominations for 2014 Presidential Rank Awards. The final decision of whether to actually award them rests with President Obama. Last year he canceled the prestigious program, citing the need for tight budgets. Typically, winning senior federal executives receive up to a third of their salary as a bonus. OPM hasn’t said whether this year, the awards could be conferred without the prize money. (Federal News Radio)
  • A group of retired military officers is urging the Pentagon to beef up plans for dealing with the impact of climate change. The advice comes in the form of a 68-page report published today from the Center for Naval Analyses. Advisers acknowledge plans the Defense Department has made, but say the climate response is uneven across the military. With Arctic waters becoming more navigable, the authors say the military must better prepare for rivalry with Russia there. They say the Navy should accelerate plans to build ice-hardened ships. The report calls climate change a threat multiplier. Panelists say climate change is coming faster than they predicted in a similar report issued in 2007. (Center for Naval Analyses)
  • The Pentagon plans to move Pvt. Chelsea Manning to a civilian prison so she can get hormone therapy. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has given the Army the go ahead to negotiate a transfer plan with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which provides gender treatment. Officials tell the Associated Press the two agencies are just starting discussions. In a first for the Pentagon, Manning asked for the treatment so she can live as a woman. But the Defense Department does not provide such treatment. Transgenders are not allowed to serve in the military. Manning cannot be discharged until she completes her 35-year prison sentence. (Associated Press)
  • What does it take to run a champion military commissary? The Defense Commissary Agency honors a handful in the United States and abroad for going beyond expectations in customer service, accountability, sales and safety. Agency leader Joseph Jeu says the achievements were even more notable in the last year, considering the hardships. He says the commissaries worked with industry partners and military stakeholders to excel, despite furloughs, budget cuts, hiring freezes and stressed-out customers. Naval Station Mayport in Florida, boasting fresh lobster, Filipino bakery items and sushi, was named the best large commissary in the United States. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, stock full of fresh pork and beef, was the best superstore. (Defense Department)
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology launches a plan to help agencies build more secure IT systems. Computer Scientist Ron Ross says the same engineering principles that apply to bridges and buildings should apply to IT. That is, security should be built in, not added on later. NIST issues the first of four steps to help. It publishes a draft version of detailed guidelines for systems security engineering and opens them for public comment. Staff hope to publish the final guidelines in December. Later steps will add information on use cases, how to manage cybersecurity engineering, and other supporting material. (NIST)
  • Here’s another reason why the Postal Service struggles financially: theft. Prosecutors say a federal grand jury has indicted two Maryland men on charges of stealing more than $2 million worth of Postal Service aluminum carts. They allegedly stole the carts, painted over the Postal Service markings and sold them as scrap aluminum to recyclers. Prosecutors say the men made about $220,000. In a statement, U.S. Postal Service Inspector in Charge Gary Barksdale says theft of mail equipment is a serious crime, and the agency can’t afford to replace equipment. (Associated Press)