The Foreign Service Journal, October 2022

56 OCTOBER 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL RETIREE VP VOICE | BY JOHN K. NALAND AFSA NEWS Contact: The Remarkable History of the FS Grievance System The Foreign Service griev- ance system originated in a tragedy: Its creation was prompted by the suicide of Foreign Service Officer Charles William Thomas in April 1971. Thomas had been separated from the Foreign Service in 1969 after being passed over for promotion. Only 47 years old, with just 18 years of service, he did not qualify for a pension. After nearly two years of unsuc- cessful job searching, he took his life in despair. Problems were belat- edly discovered with his file that the promotion boards reviewed. A highly lauda- tory Inspector’s Evaluation Report had been temporarily misfiled in another officer’s file. Thomas had not been allowed to see and rebut the single negative evaluation report in his file. Because decisions on promotions and selection-out were not reviewable, he had no mecha- nism to seek redress. His suicide sent shock waves across official Wash- ington. Prompted by his widow, Cynthia Thomas, their home state U.S. Senator Birch Bayh Jr. (D-Ind.) intro- duced legislation in June 1971 to create a Foreign Service grievance system. That leg- islation was based on a draft by AFSA’s Tex Harris and Civil Service employee Marian Nash. Seeking to head off congressional action, the State Department agreed to include a provision directing the creation of a grievance process in a December 1971 executive order signed by President Richard Nixon. But negotiations between AFSA and State to imple- ment the grievance process stalled. State refused to give the grievance board the abil- ity to order the suspension of agency actions pending the board’s decision. Also, State wanted the heads of the foreign affairs agencies to be able to reject board deci- sions. So AFSA and Cynthia Thomas continued to press for legislation. Cynthia Thomas also coordinated the filing of a suit against the State Depart- ment citing the cases of several FSOs who had been denied due process. Although AFSA did not join her suit, which was supported by the Civil Service union, the American Federation of Government Employees, the association did eventually file a supportive amicus brief. In 1973 a federal court found State’s selection-out proce- dures to be “constitution- ally defective” and ordered additional procedural safe- guards in the Foreign Service personnel system. That ruling gave a boost to AFSA’s efforts to secure legislation mandating a grievance process. After four years of advocacy in the face of State Department opposi- tion, legislation passed in 1975 and was implemented in 1976. With modifications, it was incorporated in the Foreign Service Act of 1980, creating the Foreign Service Grievance Board as we know it today. Recent history. Forty years later, a flaw in the law became apparent. While it charges the Secretary of State with making FSGB member appointments, Con- gress did not anticipate that a head of our nation’s senior Cabinet department would refuse to fulfill that responsi- bility. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did exactly that. During his final four months in office, he failed to act on the nominations of eight FSGB members to start two-year terms on Oct. 1, 2020. Thus, the seats of the “Pompeo Eight”—nearly half the FSGB—became vacant. Pending caseloads rose, and justice was delayed for employees who had appealed to the FSGB. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made those appoint- ments shortly after taking office, but the five-month delay created a problem. Now, instead of half the FSGB starting two-year terms on Oct. 1 in successive years, there were multiple starting dates: the Pompeo Eight with one date, two replacement members with another date, and the other half of the FSGB with a third date. To get back on track, an innovative solution was found. The Pompeo Eight vol- untarily resigned short of the February 2023 end of their terms, and Secretary Blinken reappointed the seven who agreed to continue, plus two replacement members, to new two-year terms effec- tive October 2022. Thus, the traditional appointment cycle was restored. A postscript. Decades after Charles Thomas’ death, declassified docu- ments revealed that, dur- ing his 1964-1967 tour at Embassy Mexico City, he learned details of Lee Harvey Oswald’s trip to Mexico seven weeks before the November 1963 Kennedy assassina- tion; during this trip, Oswald visited the Cuban and Soviet embassies. Thomas tried unsuccessfully to get U.S. government agencies to fur- ther investigate these visits. His efforts were resisted by the Central Intelligence Agency, which did not want scrutiny of whether its Mex- ico City station paid enough attention to Oswald’s interac- tions with Cuban officials. Did this effort to silence Charles Thomas factor into his being passed over for pro- motion? If it did, no evidence has yet emerged. n AFSA worked to secure legislation mandating a grievance process.