So you think there's too much mudslinging on the White House campaign trail? Consider this consolation: It's not as bad as what's getting slung around in the current executive branch that mudslingers Al Gore and George Bush want to take over in January.
Out at the Department of Health and Human Service's $2.65 billion Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in suburban Rockville, Md., the cantankerous Nelba Chavez, its administrator since July 1994, has fired yet another top official. Now back at the University of Utah after just two years as director of the $467 million-in-spending Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) is Karol Kumpfer.
Chavez likes to bill herself as "the first Hispanic/Latina to head a public health agency in the 200-year [sic] history of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."
The appointment by President Bill Clinton was quite a step up for the deputy director of San Francisco's Juvenile Probation Services, where her national appointment was greeted with amazement (mixed with delight at her departure). Suddenly Chavez found herself in command of 540 employees, over $2 billion, hundreds of contractors, as well as public policy responsibilities for complex behavioral health issues that have taxed some of the nation's best minds. By most accounts it has overtaxed Chavez. In 1998 she squeezed out David Mactas as director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Antipathy in SAMHSA's upper ranks towards Chavez is widespread.
Chavez has been kept at bay by the Center for Mental Health Services director, Dr. Bernie Arons, in part due to his professional stature and close ties to Tipper Gore, a 50-50 shot to become First Lady. Besides, says one insider wit about psychiatrist Arons: "He's got his DSM-IV" to fend off Chavez. Mactas' replacement, attorney and psychiatrist Dr. H. Westley Clark - presumably also equipped with his own DSM-IV manual - is an impressive former staffer to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). He recently won an annual award given by the American Psychiatric Association to an African American who "has significantly improved the quality of life for black people," leaving the always politically correct Chavez with only her own staff and the hapless CSAP staff of 120 (and Kumpfer) to vent on.
Says one former SAMHSA staffer commenting on Chavez's sacking of Kumpfer: "She really is awful."
"Awful" barely captures the stress of the Chavez-Kumpfer relationship. Six months ago Kumpfer collapsed at the office after a three-hour "harangue" by an irate Chavez and had to be carried out on a stretcher to the hospital.
Her own emergency room visit was not in Kumpfer's optimistic game plan when she arrived at the floundering CSAP in 1998. The agency had been without a permanent director since fall 1996. Even as Kumpfer arrived at CSAP, a dysfunctional CSAP/SAMHSA led by Chavez failed to come up with a plan to manage a new Drug Free Communities Support Program that Congress had assigned to Gen. Barry McCaffrey's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), with instructions to farm it out to the federal agency of his choosing. When CSAP/SAMHSA dawdled, the drug czar tapped the Office of Juvenile Justice to manage the program.
During her two-year tour, Kumpfer, a professional researcher with even less background in public administration than Chavez, never quite got the hang of the job. Kumpfer, notes a current CSAP staffer, was "a one-note Johnny." Her pitch is something called Parenting IS Prevention, which she marketed vigorously, along with University of Utah colleague Rose Alvarado, the recipient of a 1999 $150,000 "predictor variable" grant from CSAP.
Unlike Chavez, Kumpfer is a congenial team player who worked well with McCaffrey's ONDCP, the Justice and Education departments, and most outside groups, including members of the umbrella 31-member National Drug Prevention League. Says an admirer among CSAP's staff, "She had enthusiasm, stamina and a determination to get things done." One accomplishment was helping to craft the federal government-wide Evidence-Based Principles and Guidelines for Substance Abuse Prevention, a belated attempt to bring some standards to a field that gets little respect from outside observers. Says ONDCP's deputy director for demand reduction, Dan Schecter, "We're sorry she's going and think she did a good job."
Ford Kuramoto, national director of the Los Angeles-based National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse, gives Kumpfer generally positive marks in "a very difficult situation" but observes that CSAP has become "too narrowly focused, missing broader issues." On the question of CSAP's no-growth budget, Kuramoto notes, "I haven't seen strong support from Nelba on prevention."
On Kumpfer's watch CSAP's budget continued to stagnate, with Kumpfer also failing to appreciate the importance in Washington of pleasing your kindly parent, Congress.
In February Kumpfer flew off to a strictly optional gathering of Native American anti-drug abuse organizations in Hawaii and failed to make the 5,000-mile return trip in time for a mid-February appearance with Chavez before a House Appropriations Subcommittee chaired by Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.).
Upon her return, Kumpfer was called into Chavez's Room 12105 for a scene even uglier than the Parklawn Building where SAMHSA is housed. Whacking Kumpfer with charges of travel impropriety and more, Chavez promptly sent out an e-mail at 5:58 on Friday, Feb. 25 announcing "it is with regret" that Kumpfer was leaving - and appointing Ruth Sanchez-Way as acting director. Observes one former CSAP staffer, "You'd have to be nuts to take that job."
That "nuts of a job" would have gone to Dr. Jim Saylor, handpicked by Chavez to be Kumpfer's deputy, but says one insider, "Nelba kicked him out, too." In that earlier fiasco, Chavez had Saylor formally "investigated" for - no we're not making this up - "insubordination" when he reported in a SAMSHA staff meeting on negative comments made about Chavez's leadership. Those comments were made by SAMSHA stakeholders in focus groups that SAMHSA itself had funded. Only Saylor's status as a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service prevented his firing, although he was promptly removed. He is now assigned to the Surgeon General's Office. Said one senior staffer who got interrogated during the inquisition, "I've never been part of anything so ridiculous" in my career.
Things are also pretty ridiculous downtown at the Department of Labor (DoL). There, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Ray Bramucchi called in the Job Corps director for the past five years, civil servant Mary Silva, and relieved her on the spot. Named the same day to run Job Corps' $1.1 billion office before Silva could clean out her desk was Richard Trigg, a former federal manager of the Job Corps Great Lakes Region based in Chicago. Silva's choice: retire or be reassigned to the DoL office that handles unemployment matters, a prospect as enticing as being posted to the night shift at DoL's motor pool.
Simmering just below the surface is a nasty life-or-death struggle on national Job Corps' interpretation of the legal requirements of the Workforce Investment Act, which is now being implemented. On Silva's watch, Job Corps said WIA mandates that all accountability and funding go directly to Job Corps' 115 centers in 38 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
That interpretation spells imminent doom for two national groups who contract with DoL to help Job Corps' 70,000 annual graduates find and hold steady employment after they return home. Job Corps members spend an average of seven months in residential job training programs that are located hundreds, even thousands of miles from their hometowns.
One group, Women in Community Service (WICS), a 35-year-old Alexandria, Va., nonprofit led by President Ruth Herman, has a $2.7 million contract with DoL which enables it to deploy over 4,000 direct-service volunteers who provide "post-separation services" to recent graduates.
In even direr straits is the D.C.-based Joint Action in Community Service (JACS), headed by Harvey Weiss. That group's life-sustaining contract ended last July and is on a month-to-month extension, not a good situation to be in amid a harsh jurisdictional labor dispute. JACS' 6,000 volunteers plus WICS' 4,000 are now supposed to docilely sign up with the relevant local Job Corps center, many of which are in rural areas. Good Luck. For example, the Clearfield Utah Job Corps Center draws corpsmen from 38 states and D.C. That's a lot of collect calls back to Clearfield to chat with a non-existent volunteer about finding a job in Michigan or Georgia. New York state alone sends enrollees to 35 Job Corps centers, while the tiny Virgin Islands has graduates returning from 21 centers. The mess will have to be straightened out by July 1, the date Congress set to fully implement WIA. Contacts: Job Corps (202) 574-5000 or www.jobcorps.org; WICS (703) 671-0500 or www.wics.org; JACS (202) 537-0996 or www.jacsinc.org.
It's official: career attorney John Wilson has been named acting administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Replacing Sarah Ingersoll as chief of staff is Elena Tompkins, who prior to joining OJJDP was an attorney for the American Prosecutors Institute for Research, the grant-eating end of the National District Attorney's Association.
Joining the exodus from the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs is Jeremy Travis, the director of the $116 million per year in spending National Institute of Justice. Now he's a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's State Policy Center, the liberal-leaning D.C. think tank. As the former chief counsel of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, then chaired by Charles E. Schumer and a one-time official at New York's Vera Institute (criminal justice research center), he will be barred from lobbying OJP for funds for one long year - during which Travis' Democratic colleagues may well be swept out of public office. Contact: (202) 307-2942 or www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org
Tentatively scheduled for May 2 is a White House conference on raising teenagers that will focus on parenting and how young people themselves can help their parents. It is not focused on violence, a White House staffer says, but on positive youth issues. First Lady Hillary Clinton will be there, and the president may attend. Shirley Sagawa is the staffer in charge of organizing the invitation-only event. Contact: (202) 456-6266.