Part 2: SBA employees allege fake positions created

Tuesday - 2/8/2011, 7:15am EST

WFED's Jason Miller

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(This is part 2 of Federal News Radio's investigative series, Discouraged and Disrespected at SBA.)

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Diane Sellers said she blew the whistle on senior managers at the Small Business Administration for creating fake position descriptions. And now she is facing retaliation of a familiar kind.

Sellers said SBA removed her from her position as director of personnel services as of Jan. 19, and placed her in the agency's payroll and processing department.

"Where they put me doesn't support a GS-15," she said. "They already have a GS-14 supervising that staff, and now they are putting a 15 on top of that. It doesn't make sense. There never has been a position established for payroll and processing for Denver and headquarters before because it will not support the grade."

Sellers said the retaliation is not unlike that of which Karla Saunders has been facing for three years. Saunders testified on behalf of another employee, who accused SBA management of abuse. When two of the three managers were removed, the third remaining one, Darryl Hairston, started to exact revenge, Saunders said.

Now Sellers, who stood up for Saunders and pointed out consistent human resources problems and possible illegal activities, is up against similar reprisals. And Sellers is not alone. Ethel Matthews, who works as the senior advisor to the chief privacy officer in SBA's chief information officer's office, and Stevie Gray, who is a supervisory human resources specialist, say they too have been removed from their positions as a result of retaliation for blowing the whistle on alleged human resources and contracting fraud.

"The environment at SBA is hostile, the morale is extremely low," Sellers said. "What you have there is a total disregard for federal laws, rules and regulations as it ties into human resources."

SBA's Jonathan Swain, the assistant administrator for communications and public liaison, in e-mailed responses to questions said, "In response to your suggestion that the work environment at the SBA is hostile and that there is a 'disregard for HR rules and regulations,' we do not believe that is the case. Since being sworn in, Administrator [Karen] Mills has taken steps across the agency to strengthen management and oversight of all of SBA operations."

But Keith Lucas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2532, which represents SBA employees, said he doesn't agree with SBA management's take on the working environment at SBA.

"The personnel practices at SBA I've experienced being a union president is abysmal and horrific," he said in an interview. "I concur with a lot of the things I heard today listening to Karla make her statements. There is almost, with some managers at SBA, the feeling of invincibility because they feel no harm will come to them. Their intent is to instill fear in employees and once you have enough fear, the agency can run amok."

AFGE doesn't represent Saunders, Sellers, Matthews or Gray. Saunders and Matthews have petitioned to join the union, but SBA management never responded with a determination to let them join or not, said Elaine Powell Belnavis, AFGE Council 228 president.

Powell Belnavis said AFGE hears from employees they do represent about retaliation and mismanagement by agencies.

Sellers said the latest action against her is another in a series of attacks by SBA management.

Swain said, as per policy, SBA doesn't comment on ongoing or pending employment matters.

New position

Sellers said she found out about her new position via e-mail while on her scheduled telework day.

"Effective immediately, I am re-aligning [Payroll Services Department] to balance the workload and improve customer service," SBA chief human capital officer Kevin Mahoney wrote in the e-mail. "Supervision of the staffing functions in Washington and Denver will be moved to Paul Gutierrez. The Payroll Processing Branches in Washington and Denver will be supervised by you. I have given a lot of thought to this since our discussion last week and I believe this change will benefit the agency and insure (sic) your success as a manager."

Sellers said she's asked Mahoney three times for a position description describing her roles and responsibilities. And nearly three weeks after he assigned her the new role, Sellers continues to wait.

"Mr. Mahoney took a major portion of my current job and gave it to my subordinate in Denver, who I previously had filed a complaint against for changing my scores when I applied for the director of training position in 2009," Sellers said. "I'm not sure what my new job is. I know it's in the payroll and processing department."