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At a time when the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is channeling money to outside contractors with no experience in organic agriculture to write production standards, why would it invent reasons to fire the most experienced regulatory rule writer on its staff?
Mark Keating was a dedicated civil servant working for the NOP when he was unjustly fired on November 23, 2010. With over twenty years of service to the organic community, Mark is well known as a knowledgeable advocate who also respects the beliefs of everyone working on behalf of farmers and the environment. He brought a wealth of understanding, an inclusive approach to teamwork and a passion for informed discussion to the NOP – so why was he fired?
Despite making every effort to prevent it from happening, Mark Keating was fired because NOP management would not tolerate someone who thought differently than they did. Allegiance to orthodoxy is so important to the NOP that expressing awareness of an alternative point of view, much less endorsing one, has become grounds for dismissal. Realizing that Mark Keating was ready, willing and able to follow facts wherever they led, NOP management trumped up allegations of disobedience against him and railroaded him out of USDA.
As a veteran federal employee, Mark Keating well understood that his role at the NOP was to provide information, not set policy. That is precisely how he handled himself in hundreds of discussions with NOP staff, other federal employees, National Organic Standards Board members and public stakeholders. Indeed, nobody who communicated with Mark Keating registered a complaint against him…except NOP management, which misconstrued his ability to see more than one side of the story as a threat to their vehement efforts at message control.
Make your voice heard!
Read the accompanying timeline and decide for yourself: Was Mark Keating providing the expert opinion required by his job description and that twenty years of service to organic agriculture qualified him to give, or did NOP management prejudicially punish a subordinate who refused to play the Emperor’s New Clothes?
Please contact USDA and tell them re-hiring Mark Keating is the right thing to do!
Call Mr. Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the USDA National Organic Program at (202) 720-3252. If he is unavailable, please ask to leave a detailed message. Respectfully convey that Mark Keating would not have been doing his job if he hadn’t shared his full understanding of the critical issues assigned to him. Please add that Mark Keating has earned the responsibility to serve America’s farmers by working for USDA. Please do not ask any questions about the firing because USDA employees are prohibited by law from discussing personnel matters involving a past colleague.
“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” President Barack Obama, 1/21/09
April 11 Mark Keating (MK) is hired as an Agricultural Marketing Specialist by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). MK has worked in organic agriculture for more than twenty years as a farm worker, food handler, cooperative extension agent, Capitol Hill policy analyst, USDA staffer including three years writing standards for the NOP, ATTRA specialist, University of Kentucky faculty member and Acres, USA staff writer. His job is to coordinate an inclusive public/private dialogue on livestock production standards involving the National Organic Standards Board Livestock Committee (LC), public stakeholders and NOP, USDA and other federal government staff. Responsibilities include drafting livestock standards and related documents, responding to public inquiries about organic agriculture and representing the NOP in public forums.
April – June MK successfully completes assignments including the lead role on the interim rule on methionine that is published in the Federal Register. Represents NOP in discussions with LC, multiple public gatherings and scores of phone and email communications with stakeholders. MK receives no complaints or objections from his then-supervisor.
June 21 Melissa Bailey (MB) hired as NOP Standards Division Director. This position’s civil service job description contains two criteria: the ability to supervise a sizable federal work force staff and extensive experience in organic agriculture. MB has never worked for the federal government in any capacity and has no professional experience in organic production or certification.
July 20 Initial conflict between MK and MB. On LC conference call, MK states that organic standards should not be based on public opinion. He states that standards must be based on the Organic Foods Production Act as amended in the Code of Federal Regulations. MK states that public opinion is an essential component of rulemaking and should be factored in through appropriate notice and comment procedures. He states that “basing” (LC’s choice of words) organic standards on public comment is incompatible with rulemaking requirements. What if the vast majority of public comment told you to jump off the roof, would you do that? (Mom would have said that, if she were on the call). The LC takes exception to MK’s comments, indicating that conformance with public opinion will take precedence in developing their recommendations.
August 3 MB verbally reprimands MK for comments to LC, stating that he was expressing his “personal opinion” and not “NOP policy”. MB directs MK not to further interject his “personal opinion” into LC deliberations.
September 1 MK submits email to LC addressing its draft recommendation on animal welfare and cc’s MB. In a collegial and respectful manner, MK expresses his belief that the LC is getting ahead of itself through excessive dependence on quantitative production standards. MK states that organic standards are best understood as process, not product certification and that a systems-based understanding to animal welfare should be in place before definitive space requirements are set. MK states unequivocally that the LC and the full NOSB were appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to make recommendations on organic standards and that his comments, based on his years of experience writing federal regulations, are solely meant to be informative and supportive.
September 9 MB orders MK to her office and in the presence of a USDA Employee Relations staff member gives him a written reprimand, again citing him for expressing “personal opinion” in lieu of “NOP policy”. MB states that while failure to correct this behavior will result in his termination, she is not seeking to fire him.
October 21 At his six month performance appraisal, MB notifies MK that she has evaluated him as “less than fully successful” for the communication element of his performance plan. MB cites MK’s inappropriate “personal opinion” comments with NOSB and NOP staff, though she provides no examples of the latter. MB informs MK that another “less than fully successful” evaluation on his next performance appraisal six months hence will result in his termination, still maintaining that firing him is not her intention. Disagreeing with the evaluation, MK exercises his right not to sign the form. The contested evaluation is forwarded to NOP Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy (MM) who is responsible for resolving the conflict. Without speaking to MK, MM signs off on the evaluation the next day, thereby paving the way for MK’s firing.
October 25 MK states in an email to MB that he respects her judgment and will do everything within his abilities to meet her expectations and achieve the NOP’s objectives. He requests that she identify specific benchmarks for him to fully succeed with his responsibilities. He commits to providing her weekly updates on his major work activities including descriptions of all his significant communications.
10/29-11/22 MK completes all scheduled work assignments and submits four detailed weekly reports on 10/29, 11/5, 11/12 and 11/21. During these four weeks, MB never acknowledges receiving the weekly reports, excludes MK from the regular meetings she holds with other Standards Division staff members in her private office and assigns MK’s responsibilities and assignments to other individuals.
November 23 MK told to report for a meeting with MM and MB. Entering the room, MK sees MM, MB and two senior USDA staff members. With unannounced guests at this type of meeting, think Mafia: it’s your last meeting. MM tells MK that he has been terminated for failure to follow his supervisor’s direction. Salary is eliminated on the spot; benefits revoked in 30 days and the termination with cause will make it virtually impossible for MK to secure another civil service position. MK is given half an hour to pack his belongings and is escorted to the street.
November 30 In an email from his USDA account entitled “Thanks”, MM writes to MK stating that “If you need a reference please don’t hesitate to list me as we will provide a positive reference for you.” and “You are missed by the NOP staff. Good luck in all of your future endeavors.” Have you ever been fired for cause and received a send-off like that?
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