Updated: Jun 3, 2020
The case of former Special Agent John Parkinson illustrates just how vulnerable the FBI's disciplinary system is to managerial, and hence, partisan influence.
John Parkinson, by all accounts, was a dedicated FBI agent who, as a former U.S. Marine, took the Semper Fidelis mindset with him to the FBI. In his tenth year of FBI service, after informing his supervisor that two colleagues had been using undercover assets to obtain and host prostitutes, Parkinson suddenly found himself accused of financial malfeasance. When a witness produced evidence to exonerate him, he was instead charged in the FBI’s disciplinary system with lack of candor.
Parkinson’s great sin?
He “asked” the witness to give the exonerating evidence to an independent Department of Justice investigator because he believed the FBI was retaliating against him for exposing his colleagues. When the witness described that Parkinson had “told” him to do so, the head of the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) pounced on the distinction.
The finding, however, did not pass the smell test. In overturning it, the U.S. Court of Appeals concluded that not only was the distinction between “asked” and “told” trivial but that both Parkinson and the witness had used the words interchangeably throughout their testimony.
What’s important to understand is that the OPR head did not analyze the facts and determine Parkinson lied. Nor did the OPR head care about the truth or falsity of a charge that, incredibly, concerned evidence that exonerated Parkinson of the much more serious malfeasance charge.
Instead, the OPR head, as both prosecutor and judge, concocted a superficial lack of candor charge, held it in abeyance while weighing factors having nothing to do with the charge, and then found, based on those factors, that the charge was correct.
The OPR head's use of specious charging that hinges on something as indistinct and trivial as the difference between “asked” and “told” is common whenever OPR wants to dismiss an employee despite facts that might suggest otherwise to an appellate board.
The indomitable power vested in the OPR head – who is appointed by and reports to the FBI director – reflects a flawed system that has consequences far beyond the harm it causes FBI employees. The system is ripe for an ill-intentioned, partisan FBI director to co-opt the OPR director and quietly purge employees unwilling to help advance his or her political interests.
Parkinson’s case illustrates just how vulnerable the FBI’s disciplinary system is to managerial, and hence, partisan influence. The charges specious that sound disciplinary reasoning could not have produced them. More likely, they were the product of discussions between Parkinson’s superiors and the OPR director, who has a documented history of soliciting and considering off-the-record information unrelated to the facts of the case.
At least one FBI agent, serving temporarily in a managerial role, was privy to a roundtable discussion in which Parkinson’s managers discussed how to get rid of him. If not for Parkinson’s status as a ”preference eligible” veteran, which gave him the right to appeal OPR’s decision in federal court – a dispensation few FBI employees have – they would have succeeded.
Preference-eligible status guarantees procedures that protect FBI employees like Parkinson from potentially partisan managers who want to use the FBI's disciplinary system to dismiss or reassign employees unwilling to "play ball."
It is Protect the FBI's position that in order to safeguard the FBI from partisan politics, all FBI employees should be afforded this status.