On Friday House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) announced that Kirsten Sutton Mork, the committee’s Staff Director, would be departing the committee to serve as Chief of Staff for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Hensarling said of Mork,

“As one of my longest-serving and most dedicated aides, Kirsten has been an indispensable advisor to me for the last nine years. Her leadership, deep understanding of financial policy and the legislative process, strength of character, and commitment to conservative principles have been vital to the great victories the committee has achieved for the American people during her tenure here. While I am sad to lose such exceptional talent, I know she will do an outstanding job as Chief of Staff for the CFPB and be a tireless advocate for American consumers.”

According to the announcement, Mork began her career as finance assistant for then-candidate Peter Roskam of Illinois during his 2006 campaign, later serving as a Legislative Assistant covering financial services issues for Congressman Roskam and then Congressman Tom Price from 2007-2009. Mork served in Hensarling’s personal office as Financial Services Policy Advisor and then Legislative Director from 2009-2013 before being appointed as the Financial Services Committee’s Deputy Staff Director in 2013. She has been Staff Director for the committee since early 2017.

This occurs amidst one lawmaker's call for a probe into how Leandra English -- who held the Chief of Staff position until mid-November of last year when she was promoted to Deputy Director by departing Director Cordray -- got that job in the final days of the Obama Administration. 

On November 29, 2017, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), outlining this:

From January 3, 2016, until January 7, 2017, Ms. English was a political appointee in the Obama Administration at OPM, working as the Principal Deputy Chief of Staff for the Office of the Director.  After receiving approval from OPM, Ms. English converted on January 8, 2017 from her political appointment at OPM into a career position at CFPB, a conversion that came with a salary increase of over $11,000.  Ms. English has not remained in the role for which OPM approved a conversion and instead was tapped by CFPB to play several different roles.  Ms. English’s first position at CFPB after her political conversion was as Chief of Staff for the Chief Operating Officer at CFPB.  From January 8, 2017 to November 24, 2017, however, Ms. English assumed different leadership roles at CFPB, including Chief of Staff for CFPB.  In summary, after the election of President Trump but before his inauguration, Ms. English successfully turned a political appointment by President Obama at OPM into a career position at the CFPB through the approval of the then-Acting Director of the OPM, to whom she served as the Principal Deputy Chief of Staff.

On Thursday of last week, Johnson escalated his concerns to the Office of Special Counsel:

"Based on the information that [the Office of Personnel Management] provided to the Committee, it may be appropriate for the Office of Special Counsel to review whether the conversion of Ms. English from a political appointment at OPM to a career position within CFPB adhered to the merit system principles."

He referenced a process called "[burrowing], a practice in which a non-career, political appointee converts to a career position outside of competitive hiring processes." He added,

"Burrowing threatens to undermine the merit-based principles that serve as the foundation of the civil service because it allows political staff to be favored over potentially more qualified candidates. The Office of Special Counsel is charged with investigating hiring decisions based on political affiliation, which is a violation of civil service laws. ...According to information provided by OPM, it appears that OPM hastily approved Ms. English’s conversion in the waning days of the Obama Administration based on information that included errors, potential conflicts of interest, and insufficient independent verification.

...In reviewing the case file, [OPM’s Agency Compliance and Evaluation office] found two documents placed the position there [in the Office of the COO] in error rather than in the Office of the Director, which is the correct location of the position. While OPM asserted that the mistake “did not affect OPM’s substantive review and determination,” the documentation was subsequently demonstrated to contain errors. The CFPB only amended the paperwork after Ms. English’s appointment.

insideARM Perspective

Um. Isn't the selection of Kirsten Sutten Mork for Chief of Staff pretty much the same thing as the 2016 appointment of Leandra English? It seems Mork's entire career has been spent as a political appointee, and in fact her soon to be former boss has been named as a potential candidate to be the permanent CFPB Director. And, for that matter, wouldn't it be fair to say that most of the senior CFPB roles had been filled by people who shared the same fundamental views about the mission of the Bureau as former Director Cordray?

I get that, technically, "burrowing" occurs when one’s political position is about to end and one takes a position that a civil servant usually would hold. So, English might be burrowing because her political position at OPM was ending in weeks (as Obama would be leaving office), while Mork technically would not be burrowing because her political position was/is not ending imminently. Perhaps as a technical matter, it is also relevant that English was a political SES (Senior Executive Service) at an agency while Mork was a political appointee on the Hill.    

Nonetheless, maybe it's because I have never been a civil servant, but I am lost in the technicalities here. And from a practical standpoint, I wonder about the limited likelihood that - in Washington especially - one could identify enough senior people who are 100% free of political affiliation... Not so much because everyone is politically motivated, but because talented people find their way into a range of jobs over the course of a career. Must a political appointment disqualify someone from ever taking a civil service job in the future?


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Tags: CFPB