WASHINGTON – The Education Department’s chief information officer collapsed Tuesday after undergoing grueling questioning from lawmakers about his work on side businesses with subordinates, failure to pay taxes on his profits and award of a government contract to a friend’s company.
A department spokeswoman says the official, Danny Harris, collapsed following the three-hour hearing and was taken to a hospital, where he was evaluated by doctors and is in stable condition. Harris had testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about ethics complaints against him.
“I take full responsibility for how some of my actions have allowed questions to arise about my judgment. I view my behaviour as unacceptable and I have learned from this experience,” Harris told the panel. “Poor judgment. I make no excuses.”
His boss, Acting Secretary John B. King Jr., also appeared before the committee, testifying for the first time since becoming head of the department last month. He said Harris showed “significant lapses of judgment.”
But, facing repeated questions from lawmakers, King said that “based on the recommendation of our general counsel, I do not believe that there was a violation of law, regulation or policy.”
“You’re failing,” Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah told King. And “I don’t buy it,” Chaffetz said of Harris’ description of his car detailing and home theatre installation work as merely a hobby and not a business.
Harris received four counselling sessions from senior department officials and was not expected to receive any further punishment. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges related to his acknowledged failure to report income from his work with cars and home theatres to the Internal Revenue Service. The deputy inspector general at the agency said Harris had business cards and a logo, and her office determined he did have a business outside of his work at the department.
Tuesday’s hearing represented the first detailed public discussion of the 2013 investigation by the inspector general. Harris, who started with the department as an intern in 1985, is paid $183,000 a year as chief information officer and has received bonuses of $217,000 since 2005.
The IG concluded Harris operated businesses for home theatre installation and car detailing, paying two subordinates for their work on these side jobs, and failed to report at least $10,000 in income as required by ethics rules in his public financial disclosure report nor did he on his taxes. He used his official email account for outside business work.
Harris also participated on a panel that awarded a contract to a company owned by a friend, but his participation didn’t result in the contract being improperly awarded, according to testimony by Deputy Inspector General Sandra D. Bruce. Harris also took actions to help a relative get a job at the department and made a $4,000 loan to a subordinate.
At the hearing, Democrats also had pointed questions for King and Harris about the case and about the message it sends to millions of federal workers.
In questioning, King said the counselling Harris received was a “humbling” experience for him.
“Personally, I don’t think that counselling is humbling for an individual,” responded Democrat Stacey Plaskett, the delegate from the Virgin Islands. “That’s just a way to keep your job.”
Harris received counselling from a department ethics official and information on dealing with work relationships; he otherwise faced no additional consequences for his actions. The U.S. Attorneys’ Office for the District of Columbia declined prosecution, citing the option of administrative remedies.
Harris said he worked to mentor his staff and help them grow professionally, “whether that means developing skills for the job they are in or should they have an interest in areas outside of the office.” He said staffers approached him “expressing an interest in benefiting from my experience” and he had compensated them for their work.
Harris said he has stopped installing home theatre equipment, is no longer friends with the owner of the company that won the Education Department contract and doesn’t accept money for detailing cars. He said he also amended his taxes to account for his unreported earnings.
Harris said he inquired about a job opening for a relative but otherwise did not involve himself in the process. The department’s ethics official said Harris didn’t tamper in the hiring process.
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