Salary data about federal employees is being hidden. Congress is not pleased

The Theodore Roosevelt Building houses the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Washington.
The Theodore Roosevelt Building houses the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Washington. AP

The government’s personnel agency is hiding information about federal employees’ bonuses, overtime and cost of living adjustments. A powerful House committee wants to know why.

Open the Books, a government watchdog group, has for the past 11 years sought the names, titles, agencies, salaries and bonus information for all federal employees. It has received much of the data it sought and then has posted the information publicly. This year, it was denied salary information on more than 250,000 employees.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, as well as other committee members from both parties, sent a letter this week to OPM Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan demanding information on the withheld data.

“Either OPM has been in error for the last 11 years or it is now,” the letter reads. “The American taxpayers have a right to see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent to the maximum extent practicable.”

The oversight committee letter demands the requested information by March 19 with a briefing to follow.

An Office of Personnel Management spokesperson told McClatchy that it has not increased the number of redactions of base salaries from previous years. It has only excluded certain adjusted base salaries this time “to prevent the identities and duty stations of those who work in sensitive occupations or work for security agencies from being revealed.”

The base salary is a set amount based on an employee’s position and level of education. The adjusted salary incorporates other pay such as bonuses, overtime and what OPM refers to as the “locality pay rate,” an additional amount that depends on where the employee works.

For example, in 2018 an employee in the Washington D.C. area is paid 28.2 percent more than the base salary, while an employee in the Raleigh area is paid 19.5 percent over the base salary.

“What OPM intends to do from now on, is release base salary information for those employees whose adjusted base salaries are protected from release, with a better explanation of the reasoning,” the spokesperson said.

While the government traditionally hides some employee information — about 3,500 positions in the 2016 request — the new redactions represent one out of every eight federal employees.

Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of Open the Books, said he doesn’t buy that OPM is trying to protect the location of federal employees.

“Our only speculation is that bureaucrats do not like the disclosure of their own salaries and took extraordinary measures to hide them,” Andrzejewski said. “And it’s setting up a precedence to continue doing this.”

The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury had the most redactions, at about 138,000, 75,000 and 19,000, respectively.

Other agencies with many missing salaries include the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of the Interior and OPM itself.

Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization promoting government accountability, said OPM needs to be more forthcoming about its decision to keep this information secret. He called the jump “jarring.”

“Why is it now hundreds of thousands more, what’s behind that sudden change?” Spaulding said. “This information isn’t to harass federal employees, this is so taxpayers know how their money is being spent.”

President Donald Trump temporarily instituted a hiring freeze at federal agencies after his inauguration last January, and the Washington Post has reported that all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff by the end of September than when Trump first took office.

McGettigan is a longtime employee of the agency who assumed the acting director role just before Trump was inaugurated.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby