Red Flags over an SES’s Career

How could a senior manager get away with moving the personnel office into his personal office ? That is what I asked myself when the whistle-blowers from the NBC first contacted me  about the gross misconduct and corrupt practices which were taking place at the National Benefits Center in Lee’s Summit, Missouri under Rob Cowan’s management.

I have been in and around DC and the Federal work force a long time and the people who I know and have worked for or with for decades also found stories about how Rob Cowan magically raised GS-5s,6s,7s almost overnight to GS-11s,12s, and 13s  remarkable and frankly a little hard to believe. We all knew federal workers, quite competent, who had worked their entire careers in one grade or had just moved one grade up after decades. How could Cowan’s hires possibly jump multiple grades in just days and months? Alternatively how could federal employees who had been GS-11s,12s,13s with years of certified experience and training in relevant fields suddenly find themselves reduced in rank by multiple grades, made temporary employees or simply fired? This was the hiring regime that Rob Cowan, the INS/USCIS management wonder kid appeared to bring with him where ever he went.

Prior to taking over at the NBC, Cowan had been Director of the National Records Center, the NRC. This was another fact that got my attention because as a historian who has always had a special interest, obsession with archives and records, I knew someone who was being accused of what Cowan was being alleged to have done to personnel records might not be someone this country should have in charge of  the personal records of million of immigrants and visitors to this country.

And yet despite the obvious red flags that have followed Cowan from his California days when a couple of contractors were fired and prosecuted for destroying records, Cowan has enjoyed a relatively protected and succesful career at the INS/USCIS. Throughout his career he has apparently been a go-to manager when the processing of applicants became a major problem for the central office. Eliminating backlogs appears to have been his forte, but how did he do that while often hiring people without a college education and no related training or experience? Something simply doesn’t add up.

According to the whistle-blowers who came forward in 2005-6, Cowan’s NBC specialized in foregoing criminal background checks of applicants for visa benefits, many of the whistle-blowers had ‘slipped’ into the INS  shortly before 9/11 after the INS Vermont hiring center had its hiring powers suspended due to suspicious and irregular activity had been discovered by OPM. The future whistle-blowers were hired by an alternate hiring center in Minnesota based on their qualifications for the jobs. Unfortunately, one of the unknown and unforeseen consequences of the consolidation of multiple agencies under DHS was that the hiring power that had been stripped from the INS Vermont Hiring Center was returned to them without the proper investigation ever really being done by OPM, as OPM itself became increasingly dysfunctional and incapable of dealing with the huge expansion of the Federal government following 9/11.

How obvious was Cowan’s mismanagement and corruption over the years? When I first heard Mike Maxwell, the Director of the Office of Security and Investigations (OSI) come out of USCIS on the Hill and in the media exposing the corruption and national security failures at the USCIS in 2005-2006, I thought for sure Robert Cowan’s days were over because I knew for a fact that his testimony was based largely on Cowan’s management at the NRC and NBC.

The email exchanges between the whistle-blowers and Maxwell during his testimony before Congress had been forwarded to me by the whistle-blowers who wanted to show me that they were finally getting their grievances and reports of malfeasance before Congress. They themselves were expecting to be called before Congress or at least be interviewed by Congressional investigators because they were in fact the witnesses and true whistle-blowers, rather than Mr. Maxwell, to the corruption and misdeeds at the center of the Congressional hearings. With one exception, and it is an important exception, all the major headlines coming out of the hearings could be tied to what the whistle-blowers had attempted to bring to the attention of Congressional oversight committees.

Yet the whistle-blowers suddenly found themselves completely abandoned by Mr. Maxwell, the Congressional investigators and journalists who were covering the hearings, and which played a prominent role in scuttling the Bush administrations immigration reform bill. Why? And why did some of the most stunning revelations about Mr Cowan and the USCIS suddenly get instantly dropped by the media?

The Rogue IT program which briefly shook up the hearings, suggested that immigration benefits were being cranked out on a lone computer terminal at the NBC without any checking or oversight of the people receiving them. It was especially alarming due to the recipients’ countries of origins. Yet suddenly the story was completely scuttled when concern was raised, but never verified, that Congress had inadvertently exposed a classified program, furthermore another story about to break in the hearings was the failure of Cowan’s NBC to ever check any of the thousands of individuals they were granting immigration benefits with Interpol to see if they had criminal record abroad. (This latter fact concerning Interpol was confirmed to me by Mr. Maxwell himself when his own attempt to fix the problem behind the scenes collapsed unexpectedly and caused a fallout between himself and the whistle-blowers who started to question Mr. Maxwell’s motivations.)

So what exactly happened at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 and why did Rob Cowan survive to be in charge of issuing thousands upon thousands of additional immigration benefits given his record?

And what’s more why is Mr. Cowan in what appears to be a key position in the Obama’s administration’s controversial new immigration program?

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