Senior State Department Officials Previewing Secretary Pompeo’s Travel to Germany, Senegal, Angola, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Oman

Office of the Spokesperson

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Great to have all of you on the phone again for another trip with Secretary Pompeo.  This call is, of course, about our upcoming travel to Germany, Africa, and the Middle East.  For your reference purposes only and not for reporting, we are joined today by , who will discuss our objectives for the stops in Africa.  From this point forward, should be referred to as Senior State Department Official One.

Also joining us today is , who is available to answer your questions about the Middle East portion of the trip.  From this point forward, he will be referred to as Senior State Department Official Two.

I will be here to answer any questions that you have on the Secretary’s stop in Munich, Germany for the Munich Security Conference.  You can refer to me as Senior State Department Official Three.  Although if you have a question about Munich, you have to ask it at the beginning, because I have to leave the briefing a little early, and is next to me and will be taking over.

We are able to ask a limited number of questions on this call.  So for the purposes of efficiency, we ask you – we ask that you queue up now for questions by pressing 1 then 0 rather than at the end of the opening statements.  Again, this call is on background.  The contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

I will now turn it over to Senior State Department Official One, who will begin our call with opening remarks, and after a brief pause, we’ll move on to your questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon, good night, wherever you guys are, from Washington.  I am absolutely delighted that this trip is coming up, that the Secretary will be visiting three sub-Saharan African countries between February 15th and 19th.  Some of the overarching themes that we were looking at here – first of all, of course, is Africa’s youth bulge.  It is the youngest continent.  As we know, Africa’s population will be doubling between now and 2050, and we want to absolutely empower that youth and make sure that they are a force for dynamic growth and economic empowerment and better governance in the world.

Another theme is economic growth, trade and investment with the continent.  The overall economic growth rates in Africa are some of the highest in the world, and the three countries where the Secretary will be going are especially standouts in that regards.  Another one is that the countries that the Secretary will be visiting contribute to the stability of their region.  Unfortunately, we all know about the instability and absolutely some of the terrorist threats on the continent, but these three countries are major contributors to regional stability.  Also, the countries are benefiting from dynamic leadership.  In each of the countries, we can point to examples where the leaders involved have been making some really positive achievements.  Also, as you will note, amongst the countries we do have one Francophone, one Lusophone, and if we can give a language to Ethiopia that is aside from Amharic or Oromia or one of the Ethiopian languages, which would be English, which is a working language there.  And of course, obviously, in Ethiopia the Secretary will also be engaging with the African Union.  If there’s one thing we can say about Addis Ababa, it is that in addition to being the capital of Ethiopia, it is in also many respects the capital of Africa.

So with that, I will be happy to stop, and we can talk in greater detail about any of the specific countries, purposes, common themes, anything like that that you all would like to address.  Over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Thanks so much.  So had to step out for a quick second; he will be back to answer questions.  I am going to do a quick briefing on the Middle East part of our trip until he gets back.

So for the last leg of Secretary Pompeo’s trip, he will travel to Saudi Arabia and Oman.  In Riyadh, he will meet with senior Saudi leadership to discuss bilateral and regional issues of mutual concern.  They will discuss the Iranian regime’s continued destabilizing influence in the region.  Regarding Yemen, they will discuss their concerns about the escalation of violence there, the need to return to a UN-led peace process, and the urgent humanitarian concerns in Houthi-controlled areas.  They will also discuss human rights and consular issues related to Saudi Arabia.  The Secretary will also have an opportunity to meet with the diplomatic community and their families while in Riyadh to thank them for their service.

Lastly, the Secretary will travel to Muscat, Oman.  He will express his condolences on the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said in person, and will meet with the new sultan, Haitham bin Tarik.  This is an opportunity for the Secretary to underscore the United States steadfast partnership with Oman, and our desire to continue our strong bilateral cooperation.  The Secretary will also meet with the American embassy community in Oman as well.

And, as I said earlier at the beginning of the call, if you have questions, you can press 1 and then 0 to get in the queue.

OPERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, once again, please press 1 then 0.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Okay.  Let’s start with Matt Lee from the Associated Press.

OPERATOR:  Matthew Lee, your line is now open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)  I have a question for both of you.  Senior Official Three first, since you have to go, do you have any more – any of the highlights of the Munich – of the Secretary’s participation in the security conference, any speaking?  I understand Saturday, Saturday morning, maybe?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  And any confirmed bilats yet or multilat meetings, possibly with Secretary Esper, who will also be there?

And then Senior Official – oh, wait, now I’m – Senior Official One, I guess, on Africa —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Africa.

QUESTION:  Well, you got it all confused.  Senior Official One, given the Secretary’s weekend speech about the perils of China, his message which has been pretty constant throughout Europe and elsewhere about China, I’m wondering about the Angola stop, which is kind of like a little – an outpost – Chinese – Chinese outpost where they’ve really kind of taken over.  How big of an issue do you expect him to make of that?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Okay.  So quickly on Munich, we will get all of you in the bullpen all of the details there.  He is, as of now, speaking – the Secretary’s speaking on Saturday – excuse me, on Friday morning before we head out on our Africa stops.  Is it Friday morning or – yes, sorry, I’m getting my days confused.

There are a number of bilats.  A lot of them will be with Esper, a lot of them will be with members of Congress that are there.  So I don’t have anything to confirm yet, but Matt, the last I – we can talk as we get closer, but the last I checked, there was probably at least 10 meetings that we had on the books there.  So we will have readouts for all of those.  You can – I think the Munich Security Conference posts online all of the senior officials coming.  So he’ll be meeting with a number of his counterparts.

We’re working on the speech now.  We’ll make sure that all of you in our bullpen have an embargoed copy of that speech.  It is the Secretary’s first time attending the Munich Security Conference as Secretary of State.  He’s been there in the past, but never as Secretary of State, so I think that this is a really good opportunity for him to talk to our allies and to the transatlantic alliance about how the Trump administration views that relationship going forward.

Now I’ll turn it over to our senior official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah.  As you guys know, China in Africa is one of the major themes, and we’ve had a number of discussions on that.  With this trip more so, the Secretary is going to be really promoting U.S. engagement with these African countries, and why the U.S. is a phenomenal partner for Africa.

Angola specifically, first of all, we wanted to really congratulate President Lourenco for his economic and political reforms, his extremely strong anti-corruption efforts, and his very strong regional leadership.  If people will remember when Tshisekedi was elected president of the Congo, DRC, his very first trip out was to see President Lourenco in Angola, and President Lourenco just made some remarkable, remarkable achievements in his time there.

And absolutely, we want to expand our economic ties with Angola.  Angola offers tremendous promise in a number of areas, and again, as you all know, for the Africa bureau, our number one goal is dramatically increasing U.S. trade and investment, and that’s what we’re there for.  Over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Okay.  Let’s go to Annika Hammerschlag from Voice of America.

OPERATOR:  Annika Hammerschlag, your line is now open.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I was wondering if you’re going to elaborate – Senior State Department Official One can elaborate more on the Secretary’s schedule in Senegal, and why he’s going there, what he’s hoping to gain from his meeting with Macky Sall.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Sure, absolutely.  Well, as you guys probably know, the United States has – this year, we have 60 years of relations with Senegal.  We have very strong shared democratic values.  We see some tremendous bilateral economic opportunities.  Senegal is an extremely strong security partner for the United States.  Especially with the very serious stability, terrorism, conflict problems going on in that region, Senegal is an absolute bulwark.  It’s one of the states there that exports stability instead of instability.  Also, Senegalese society is very tolerant.  So in many respects, Senegal is an example for, I’d say, the entire continent, and we want to further develop our partnership with Senegal.

If you look at the map of Africa and the map of North America, Dakar is one of the closest points, and the Senegalese very much would like to take advantage of that.  In Senegal, in addition to, obviously, meeting with Senegalese officials – and this is pretty well the pattern for each of these three countries.   In addition to meeting with Senegalese officials, the Secretary will be meeting with business leaders, again, to discuss the business environment, expanding trade and investment, as always with the U.S. embassy staff to thank our people for the tremendous work that they do, for YALI, Young African Leaders Initiative alumni, focus on women’s empowerment, and also will be doing a media event.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay, next question.  Let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon from AFP.

QUESTION:  My question is also for senior official number one.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the security aspects in Africa.  I mean, there’s also been talk, as you know, in the Pentagon of a drawdown militarily of the United States in Africa.  Is there going to be any message about Africans doing more for themselves or more about cooperation on the security front?  Any talk about what to do in the Sahel?

And if I could add on the Ethiopia stop, how much, if any, do you think there’ll be discussion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam?  With the talks that have gone here in Washington, is this an effort – is this an opportunity for the Secretary perhaps to push that across the finish line, or do you not see that coming up very much?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  On the second question, hopefully, that situation is close to resolution with the discussions here in Washington, so we’ll see what the status is by the time the Secretary gets there.  I mean, what I can say about that is we have two very strong friends who are involved in that.  The United States wants them to come to resolution.  And now, more and more the third participant is also a U.S. friend with the changes that have gone on in Sudan, so hopefully – let’s keep our fingers crossed and remain very optimistic.

On the security aspect, all three – as I mentioned, all three of these countries are key because they’re very strong security partners, one, or they’re very involved in promoting stability and exporting stability in their regions.  Specifically on the Sahel, as you all know, there is a review going on and any specific information regarding that review should go to the Department of Defense.  But I can tell you that from the U.S. State Department’s point of view, an awful lot of the security programs that we conduct in the Sahel are actually paid for by U.S. State Department funds.  We absolutely plan to continue those programs.  Our embassies are very much energized and involved diplomatically.

And I guess as some of you know, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Ambassador David Hale is currently in the Sahel visiting a number of states there, conducting meetings with some of the regional leaders.  So we are very focused on the Sahel.  We are very focused on African peace and stability, and our energy level will continue to be very high.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  For our next question, can we go to the line of Lara Jakes.

OPERATOR:  Lara Jakes, your line is now open.

QUESTION:  Hi, everyone.  Senior State Department Official One, you didn’t mention anything about South Sudan, and so I’m wondering while the Secretary is in Addis, which has been a place where South Sudan has been a place for peace talks and meetings, I’m wondering to what extent this will be addressed.  Specifically, has there been any movement in this process since the U.S. appointed a new envoy and since the sanctions were levied last month?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  As you guys probably know, I was in South Sudan just, I think, like 10 days ago.  Yes, Ambassador Symington is now engaged directly in the region.  I think he was just in Addis yesterday, sent in some interesting reports.  We’ll see where that goes.  We’re looking at the February 22 deadline, keeping our fingers crossed, hopefully, that the leaders involved will be able to put aside their differences and move forward on forming the transitional unity government which everybody wants.

As far as the Secretary’s discussions will go, obviously, when he’s in Ethiopia and he will be meeting with the senior leadership, they will be discussing regional issues.  But this trip is more focused on expanding U.S. ties, opportunities, economic opportunities.  So the South Sudan part is not the central piece because, as you guys know, dealing with an issue like South Sudan, that needs constant ongoing attention, and this is much a larger-picture visit.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Hey, I just want to let everybody know that Senior State Department Official Two is here if you have questions on our stops in the Middle East.  And let’s go to Conor Finnegan for the next question.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi.  This is for official number one as well.  I have a couple questions on Sudan.

First, the Secretary had a call recently with General Burhan and invited him to Washington.  The readout, though, didn’t make a mention of the country’s transition to democracy.  So I’m just wondering if you can reiterate the support of the administration for that transition, for Prime Minister Hamdok, and whether or not that will be a part of this trip as well.

But on the invitation specifically, does it send the wrong message to invite General Burhan after the Secretary did not meet the prime minister here in Washington in December?

And then finally, General Burhan also said that his recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will help Sudan be de-listed from the state sponsors of terrorism list.  I’m just wondering if that is true, if that was a message that the Secretary gave him.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  On the de-listing, obviously, that is a process on itself.  That is going to play itself out.  As I have said many times, it is not flipping a light switch.  It is definitely a process.  Everybody wants it to move forward as quickly as possible.  And that’s as much as I’ll say on that.

As far as meetings go, obviously, there are still to be some meetings in the future.  Meetings in the past are not by themselves limiting, so stay tuned as to potential future meetings.

Absolutely, the United States of America continues to support the transition process and the civilian-led transitional government.  There are currently two parts to the government.  I was also recently just in Khartoum.  I was there, I think, about 10 days ago.  And one of the aspects of the visit which for me was very optimistic that, as opposed to when I was there last year when there was a considerable distrust between the different parts of the government, this time there was really a sense that both Prime Minister Hamdok and General Burhan saw their relationship as a partnership with each of them playing key roles.

So to answer your question, yes, the United States of America continues to very strongly support the transition and to support the civilian part of the government.  They each have different responsibilities.  And as far as meetings go, we’ll just see what happens in the future.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  For our next question, maybe a Middle East question, and we’ll go to the line of Kim Dozier, please.

OPERATOR:  Kim Dozier, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  I wanted to ask a question of the official looking at Gulf things.  When you make the stop in Saudi Arabia, will you be bringing up aspects of reform, including the Saudi textbooks, as IMPACT-SE just did a review of the 2019 curriculum and found it still continues – includes things like calling Jews monkeys and warning against close relationships, friendships, with Westerners?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yes, thank you.  Certainly, reform issues, human rights, will definitely be part of the conversation that we have with the Saudis in Riyadh.  The textbook issue is something that we’ve been working on for years.  We know it’s not perfect.  We know there is still room for improvement.  So I can’t tell you whether that specific issue will come up.  There are other things that we want to be sure that get discussed.  But what I can assure you of is that that issue is on our radar screen and ripe for further improvement.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  For our next question, let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler from CNN.

OPERATOR:  Your line is now open.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this call.  Senior Official Two, I was wondering if you could comment on reports that the Secretary is hoping to engineer a meeting between Crown Prince MBS and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  And if so, will those discussions be brought up in his Riyadh stop?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Certainly, the issue of Israel’s reintegration in the region is something that the administration is focused on, and you’ve been able to see the ways in which that has taken place.  But on this particular issue, I don’t have anything I can share with you at this point.

MODERATOR:  Okay, next question.  Let’s go to Jack Robinson from Fox.

OPERATOR:  Your line is now open.

QUESTION:  To Senior Official Number Two, in the Middle East part of the trip, to what extent will the President’s and the administration’s new plan on Israel and Palestine be mentioned?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, I’m sure this will be a topic.  You know the President unveiled it just here in the last 10 days.  It’s a very current issue.  The Saudis have a role to play, and so I can – I am quite certain that the Secretary will want to discuss the way forward with the Saudis.

MODERATOR:  Okay, I think we have time for one more question.  Let’s go to the line of Joyce Karam from The National newspaper.

OPERATOR:  Joyce, your line is now open.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  Now, I have two questions.

On the Africa side, I mean, given that we just saw the travel restrictions from the Trump administration, are you at all concerned that this will sort of muddy the waters, especially with countries like Sudan?

And on the trip to Saudi, the Saudi foreign minister will be meeting Pompeo on – Secretary Pompeo on Wednesday here in D.C.  Is this also Yemen-related?  And what are you hoping to achieve on Yemen?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Okay, on my side of it, on the visa limitations, I don’t believe so, because, for example, we just had the binational dialogue with Nigeria this past week, and the Nigerian foreign minister was here, very much involved in the visa issues.  And we all agreed as to the reasons that we had to do that and what we can do fairly quickly to overcome that, and we all agreed that Nigeria has – for example, had already done considerable amount of work for that.  And all the other countries involved, they know what the deficiencies are, what we need to do to feel more secure in how they handle passports, and then hopefully that they can be ended fairly quickly.  Over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  On the Yemen question, the Saudi foreign minister will be here on Wednesday, will see the Secretary.  Yemen will feature prominently in their discussion as it will in the Secretary’s conversations in Riyadh.  There has been a de-escalation effort underway here for a couple of weeks.  It’s been sorely tested by renewed fighting on the ground inside Yemen.  And we’re very keen to see the fighting brought down to a more acceptable level for humanitarian supplies to be able to continue to flow freely through the country, despite some very aggressive limitations and obstruction that the Houthis are putting on aid groups right now.  So – and then moving the process back towards a real – a genuine political dialogue is what we are aiming for.

MODERATOR:  Super.  Thanks, everybody, for your time, for joining the call today.  And thanks to our presenters for sharing their insights.  This concludes the call, and as such, the contents – or the embargo on the contents is lifted.  Thank you.

 

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    From fiscal years 2014 through 2018, veterans left federal government jobs at a higher rate than non-veterans, according to GAO analysis of Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data. After controlling for key demographic and employment factors, GAO estimated that on average, 6.7 percent of veterans left the federal government compared to 5 percent of similar non-veterans. While veterans primarily left to retire, veterans resigned from federal service at 1.6 times the rate of similar non-veterans. GAO also estimated that 18.7 percent of veterans resigned within their first 5 years of federal service compared to 11.1 percent of similar non-veterans. Each of the 24 Chief Financial Officer Act agencies experienced higher rates of attrition among veteran employees than similar non-veteran employees. GAO identified six workplace factors associated with veterans' intentions to leave federal service. These factors—or drivers of retention—are based on an analysis of data from the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS), a tool for collecting employees' perceptions of their federal work experiences. Key Workplace Factors Associated with Veterans Considering Leaving Federal Service More than half of both veterans and non-veterans reported being satisfied with five of the six factors. More than half of both veterans and non-veterans reported not being satisfied with opportunities for advancement at their agencies. Overall we found that veterans were slightly less satisfied with these factors than non-veterans, which could in part explain the higher attrition rates for veterans. Improvements in employee satisfaction in these areas may lead to higher retention rates. Performing analyses similar to those in this report could help agencies identify and strengthen strategies for improving veteran retention. However, challenges exist for agencies using OPM FEVS data on their own to identify drivers of retention among their workforces. OPM could help agencies with these analyses so they could use data to address veteran retention issues and other workforce challenges. Approximately 200,000 servicemembers transition from military service to civilian life each year, according to the Department of Defense. A 2009 executive order created a government-wide initiative to increase veteran federal employment. While veteran hiring has increased since 2009, OPM has raised concerns about retention and job satisfaction of newly hired veterans. GAO was asked to analyze veteran federal employment data. This report analyzes (1) recent trends in attrition for veterans and non-veterans, and (2) key factors that may affect a veteran employee's decision to leave federal employment. GAO conducted a statistical analysis comparing attrition for veterans and similar non-veterans for fiscal years 2014 through 2018 (the most current data available). GAO conducted a literature review to identify potential drivers of retention and used regression methods to analyze OPM FEVS data to identify key drivers for veterans and non-veterans. GAO also interviewed OPM officials and veteran service organizations. GAO recommends that OPM assist the 24 CFO Act agencies by using OPM FEVS data to analyze the key drivers of veterans' retention. OPM partially concurred with the recommendation because of concerns about its scope and, in response, we modified it. For more information, contact Yvonne D. Jones at (202) 512-2717 or jonesy@gao.gov.
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    GAO performed 31 covert tests to selected sales representatives and stated that we had pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, and we requested coverage for these conditions to see if the sales representative directed GAO's undercover agents to a comprehensive Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)-compliant plan, or a PPACA-exempt plan that does not cover what we requested. As part of these tests, GAO gauged whether sales representatives engaged in potentially deceptive practices, such as making false or misleading statements about coverage or omitting material information about coverage. The results of the covert tests ranged from sales representatives appropriately explaining to GAO's undercover agents that a PPACA-exempt plan would not cover the pre-existing condition the undercover agents stated that they had, to engaging in potentially deceptive marketing practices that misrepresented or omitted information about the products they were selling. Specifically, in 21 of 31 covert tests, the sales representative appropriately referred undercover agents to a PPACA-compliant plan. In two of 31 covert tests, the sales representatives did not appear to engage in deceptive marketing practices but were not always consistent or clear in their explanation of the type of coverage and plans they were selling. In the remaining eight of 31 covert tests, the sales representatives engaged in potentially deceptive marketing practices, such as claiming the pre-existing condition was covered when the health plan documents GAO received after purchase said otherwise. GAO plans to refer these eight cases of potential deceptive marketing practices to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and corresponding state insurance commissioners' offices for follow-up as appropriate. Millions of Americans obtain health insurance coverage in the individual market, which consists mainly of private plans sold directly to consumers without access to group coverage. While generally regulated by states, starting in 2014, PPACA established a number of new federal requirements for the individual health insurance market. For example, PPACA prohibited insurers from excluding coverage or charging higher premiums for pre-existing conditions and required that individual market plans cover a set of essential health benefits, including coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorder services, prescription drugs, and maternity and newborn care. Certain types of health coverage arrangements that can be sold directly to consumers do not have to comply with some or all of PPACA's individual market requirements and, as a result, may be less expensive, but also offer more limited benefits compared to PPACA-compliant plans. Recent changes to federal law and regulations could result in the increased use of PPACA-exempt health coverage arrangements as alternatives to PPACA-compliant plans in the individual market. For example, in 2018, federal regulations expanded the availability of short term, limited duration insurance (STLDI) plans, a type of PPACA-exempt arrangement. In addition, starting January 1, 2019, individuals who fail to maintain "minimum essential coverage," as required by PPACA, no longer face a tax penalty. Further, the devastating economic effects of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could create additional demand for affordable health coverage, including PPACA-exempt plans.  With these changes, and because of their lower relative costs, PPACA-exempt health coverage arrangements may be attractive to consumers, particularly those who find it difficult to afford PPACA-compliant plans. However, such arrangements generally do not need to follow PPACA's requirement that plans in the individual market be presented to consumers in defined categories outlining the extent to which they are expected to cover medical care. As a result, depending on how they are marketed and sold, PPACA-exempt arrangements could present risks for consumers, if, for example, they buy them mistakenly believing that coverage is as comprehensive as for PPACA-compliant plans. GAO was asked to obtain insights on the marketing and sales practices of insurance sales representatives who sell PPACA-exempt plans. In this report, GAO describes the results of covert tests we conducted involving selected sales representatives, when contacted by individuals stating that they had pre-existing conditions. In this regard, GAO agents performed a number of covert tests (i.e., undercover phone calls) from November 2019 through January 2020 posing as individuals needing to purchase health insurance to cover pre-existing conditions. GAO also discussed the marketing and oversight of PPACA-exempt arrangements with senior officials from federal agencies, including the FTC, and Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)5. GAO provided a draft of this product to FTC, HHS, and NAIC for review and comment. FTC, HHS, and NAIC provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. HHS provided additional written comments on a draft of this report. For more information, contact Seto Bagdoyan at (202)-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.
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  • Disaster Response: Agencies Should Assess Contracting Workforce Needs and Purchase Card Fraud Risk
    In U.S GAO News
    The efforts of selected agencies to plan for disaster contracting activities and assess contracting workforce needs varied. The U.S. Forest Service initiated efforts to address its disaster response contracting workforce needs while three agencies—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the U.S. Coast Guard, and Department of the Interior (DOI)—partially addressed these needs. The Environmental Protection Agency indicated it did not have concerns fulfilling its disaster contracting responsibilities. Specifically, GAO found the following: USACE assigned clear roles and responsibilities for disaster response contracting activities, but has not formally assessed its contracting workforce to determine if it can fulfill these roles. The Coast Guard has a process to assess its workforce needs, but it does not account for contracting for disaster response activities. DOI is developing a strategic acquisition plan and additional guidance for its bureaus on how to structure their contracting functions, but currently does not account for disaster contracting responsibilities. Contracting officials at all three of these agencies identified challenges executing their regular responsibilities along with their disaster-related responsibilities during the 2017 and 2018 hurricane and wildfire seasons. For example, Coast Guard contracting officials stated they have fallen increasingly behind since 2017 and that future disaster response missions would not be sustainable with their current workforce. GAO's strategic workforce planning principles call for agencies to determine the critical skills and competencies needed to achieve future programmatic results. Without accounting for disaster response contracting activities in workforce planning, these agencies are missing opportunities to ensure their contracting workforces are equipped to respond to future disasters. The five agencies GAO reviewed from above, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), collectively spent more than $20 million for 2017 and 2018 disaster response activities using purchase cards. GAO found that two of these six agencies—Forest Service and EPA—have not completed fraud risk profiles for their purchase card programs that align with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Additionally, five of the six agencies have not assessed or documented how their fraud risk for purchase card use might differ in a disaster response environment. DOI completed such an assessment during the course of our review. An Office of Management and Budget memorandum requires agencies to complete risk profiles for their purchase card programs that include fraud risk. GAO's Fraud Risk Framework states managers should assess fraud risk regularly and document those assessments in risk profiles. The framework also states that risk profiles may differ in the context of disaster response when managers may have a higher fraud risk tolerance since individuals in these environments have an urgent need for products and services. Without assessing fraud risk for purchase card programs or how risk may change in a disaster response environment, agencies may not design or implement effective internal controls, such as search criteria to identify fraudulent transactions. The 2017 and 2018 hurricanes and California wildfires affected millions of people and caused billions of dollars in damages. Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and intense due to climate change. Federal contracts for goods and services play a key role in disaster response and recovery, and government purchase cards can be used by agency staff to buy needed items. GAO was asked to review federal response and recovery efforts related to recent disasters. This report examines the extent to which selected agencies planned for their disaster response contracting activities, assessed their contracting workforce needs, and assessed the fraud risk related to their use of purchase cards for disaster response. GAO selected six agencies based on contract obligations for 2017 and 2018 disasters; analyzed federal procurement and agency data; reviewed agencies' policies on workforce planning, purchase card use, and fraud risk; and analyzed purchase card data. FEMA was not included in the examination of workforce planning due to prior GAO work. GAO is making 12 recommendations, including to three agencies to assess disaster response contracting needs in workforce planning, and to five agencies to assess fraud risk for purchase card use in support of disaster response. For more information, contact Marie A. Mak at (202) 512-4841 or makm@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found GAO has identified key characteristics of an asset management framework designed to optimize funding and decision-making related to capital assets. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to have challenges meeting at least three of these key characteristics. Staffing resources. This key characteristic calls for organizational leadership to provide the necessary resources for asset management to succeed. Previously, VA officials described problems resulting from low levels of staffing resources, including project delays and difficulties in managing projects. VA has taken some actions to improve staffing levels, such as establishing special salary rates for engineers, and VA's vacancy rate for general engineers has improved, decreasing from 17.2 percent in fiscal year 2019 to 12.6 percent in fiscal year 2020. VA officials, however, continue to describe staffing difficulties in planning and executing projects and limits on the number of projects that facilities can undertake. Communication and collaboration. This key characteristic calls for organizations to promote a culture of information-sharing across traditional agency boundaries to help ensure that agencies make effective, enterprise-wide decisions regarding their assets. VA has taken steps to improve communication among offices with asset management responsibilities, such as by issuing an asset management directive that VA officials said would help to facilitate such collaboration. However, in current work GAO has found instances of insufficient communication, such as lack of (1) collaboration early in project development between local offices and the Office of Construction and Facilities Management and (2) coordination between construction offices and the Office of Information and Technology when bringing facilities online. Measurement and evaluation. This key characteristic calls for agencies to continuously evaluate the performance of their asset management systems and implement necessary improvements to optimize the assets' value and ensure the assets reflect the organization's current goals. VA previously developed goals and measures for its program of inspections to identify maintenance and repair needs in health care settings. However, currently VA lacks goals with related measures that would evaluate its asset management processes and point the way to necessary improvements. Why GAO Did This Study VA manages a vast portfolio of real property assets, including a healthcare system that provides care at 171 VA medical centers and 1,112 outpatient sites to over 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA health care program. VA has pressing infrastructure needs, including adapting to changes in veterans' demographics and maintaining or replacing aging facilities. GAO's key characteristics of an asset management framework state that effectively managing assets requires, among other things, maintaining leadership support that provides the necessary resources; a collaborative organizational culture; and a system for evaluating and improving asset management performance. However, GAO's previous and ongoing work has found that VA continues to face challenges on these fronts. Although VA has implemented some GAO recommendations, several priority recommendations remain outstanding in areas related to asset management, such as staffing and capital planning. GAO was asked to testify about VA's management of its capital asset portfolio. This statement summarizes GAO's findings from prior reports and preliminary observations from ongoing work examining VA's capital asset management. In ongoing work, GAO reviewed VA documentation and interviewed officials from VA headquarters offices involved in asset management. GAO also interviewed personnel at a selection of eight VA medical centers and seven regional offices and from four Veterans Service Organizations about VA's asset management. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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  • Internet of Things: Information on Use by Federal Agencies
    In U.S GAO News
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Passengers with disabilities face infrastructure, information, and customer service barriers at U.S. airports, according to representatives of selected airports, disability advocacy organizations, as well as a review of relevant literature. Infrastructure barriers can include complex terminal layouts and long distances between gates and can be difficult for some to navigate. Essential travel information is not always available in a format accessible to all. For example, a person with hearing loss could miss crucial gate information that is solely provided over a loudspeaker. A passenger might not receive appropriately sensitive service, such as wheelchair assistance, at the airport, although the service provided is required by the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) regulations. According to stakeholders, while no solution meets all needs, a number of practices can help reduce or eliminate some of these barriers to equal access at airports. For example, some selected airports use external disability community and passenger groups to proactively engage in identifying barriers and develop solutions. Other airports have implemented technology-based solutions, such as mobile phone applications to make airport navigation easier. Examples of Stakeholder-Identified Features to Assist Airport Passengers with Disabilities The Office of Aviation Consumer Protection within the Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for oversight of airlines' compliance with the ACAA. In 2008, DOT updated its entire ACAA regulation, including adding new training requirements for airline personnel, such as requiring training to be recurrent. Following this update, DOT conducted outreach to domestic and foreign airlines on the changes and reviewed airlines' disability training sessions and materials. Agency officials said that in recent years, DOT has conducted reviews of airlines' training only when passengers' complaints indicate a possible problem, as officials' analyses have not shown training generally to be a significant cause of service violations. DOT officials and stakeholders said other factors, such as limited availability of staff to assist passengers with disabilities, at times may affect the service passengers with disabilities receive. DOT is assessing some of these factors through the statutorily mandated ACAA Advisory Committee, formed in late 2019 to make recommendations to improve accessibility to air travel. The committee met in 2020, established three subcommittees, and plans to reconvene by summer 2021. Why GAO Did This Study Approximately 43 million people in the United States have some type of disability, which may affect mobility, vision, hearing, and cognition. Without accessible airport facilities and accommodations—such as appropriate assistance from the check-in counter to the gate, or effective communication of flight information—air travel for people with disabilities can be extremely challenging. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 includes provisions for GAO to review leading airport accessibility practices for passengers with disabilities, as well as required training for airline and contract service personnel who assist these passengers within the airport. This report examines, among other objectives: stakeholder-identified barriers that passengers with disabilities face when accessing airport facilities, accessibility practices to assist passengers with disabilities, as well as how DOT has overseen airlines' disability-related training. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, DOT documents, literature, as well as information describing disability training provided by selected airlines and contractors. GAO interviewed a non-generalizable sample of stakeholders, including those at 16 U.S. airports selected based on size and geography, eight large and low-cost domestic airlines selected based on the greatest number of disability-related passenger complaints and enplanements, and six aviation service contractors working for those airlines. GAO also conducted interviews with DOT officials and 10 disability advocacy organizations, among others. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    In 1996 Congress provided DOD with authorities enabling it to obtain private-sector financing and management to repair, renovate, construct, and operate military housing. DOD has since privatized about 99 percent of its domestic housing. The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in addressing weaknesses in its privatized housing program, and GAO has identified additional opportunities to strengthen the program. GAO reported in March 2020 on DOD's oversight and its role in the management of privatized housing. Specifically, GAO found that 1) the military departments conducted some oversight of the physical condition of privatized housing, but some efforts were limited in scope; 2) the military departments used performance metrics to monitor private developers, but the metrics did not provide meaningful information on the condition of housing; 3) the military departments and private developers collected maintenance data on homes, but these data were not captured reliably or consistently, and 4) DOD provided reports to Congress on the status of privatized housing, but some data in these reports were unreliable, leading to misleading results. GAO made 12 recommendations, including that DOD take steps to improve housing condition oversight, performance indicators, maintenance data, and resident satisfaction reporting. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations. As of February 2021, DOD fully implemented 5 recommendations and partially implemented 7 recommendations. DOD should also take action to improve the process for setting basic allowance for housing (BAH)—a key source of revenue for privatized housing projects. In January 2021, GAO reported on DOD's process to determine BAH. GAO found that DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. GAO recommended that DOD review its methodology to increase sample sizes. GAO has also determined, in a report to be issued this week, that DOD should improve oversight of privatized housing property insurance and natural disaster recovery. GAO assessed the extent to which the military departments and the Office of the Secretary of Defense exercise oversight of their projects' insurance coverage. GAO found that the military departments have exercised insufficient oversight, and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has not regularly monitored the military departments' implementation of insurance requirements. Without establishing procedures for timely and documented reviews, the military departments cannot be assured that the projects are complying with insurance requirements and assuming a proper balance of risk and cost. The draft of this report, which GAO provided to DOD for official comment, included 9 recommendations, 2 of which DOD addressed in January 2021 by issuing policy updates. The final report's 7 remaining recommendations, including that the military departments update their respective insurance review oversight procedures, will help strengthen DOD's oversight of privatized housing, once implemented. DOD concurred with all of the recommendations. Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) in 1996 to improve the quality of housing for servicemembers. DOD is responsible for general oversight of privatized housing projects. Private-sector developers are responsible for the ownership, construction, renovation, maintenance, and repair of about 99 percent of military housing in the United States. GAO has conducted a series of reviews of MHPI, following reports of hazards (such as mold) in homes, questions about DOD's process to determine the basic allowance for housing rates, which is a key revenue source for privatized housing, and concerns about how DOD ensures appropriate property insurance for privatized housing projects impacted by severe weather. This statement summarizes 1) steps DOD has taken to strengthen oversight and management of its privatized housing program, and work remaining; 2) actions needed to improve DOD's BAH process; and 3) actions needed to enhance DOD's oversight of privatized housing property insurance. The statement summarizes two of GAO's prior reports, and a report to be issued, related to privatized housing. For this statement, GAO reviewed prior reports, collected information on recommendation implementation, and interviewed DOD officials. In prior reports, GAO recommended that DOD improve oversight of housing conditions; review its process for determining basic allowance for housing rates; and that the military departments update their housing insurance review oversight procedures. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Pipeline Safety: Performance Measures Needed to Assess Recent Changes to Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Regulations
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    What GAO Found In 2019, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a final rule amending its hazardous liquid pipeline safety regulations. Selected pipeline operators and officials from PHMSA and selected states' pipeline safety offices said that these changes would enhance pipeline safety and present no significant challenges. They said the most beneficial changes expanded the scope of inspections. For example, in addition to existing requirements for operators to use specialized tools to inspect pipelines in “high consequence areas”—defined by population and environmental factors—the 2019 Rule requires such inspections outside of those areas. While operators noted the rule's potential to improve safety, all 11 operators GAO interviewed identified specific amendments that could increase their costs. For example, several operators said they would need to modify or replace some of their pipeline to allow for certain inspection tools required by the changes. PHMSA and state pipeline safety officials said they did not anticipate oversight challenges or additional costs because the changes did not alter their inspection process. Specialized In-Line Inspection Tool Being Placed in a Launch Point on a Pipeline PHMSA held meetings with and provided guidance to operators and inspectors on the changes but has not developed measures to assess if the changes improve safety. Leading performance management practices call for agencies to track progress toward goals using measures that include targets for expected levels of performance and timeframes. While PHMSA has desired outcomes for the 2019 Rule, including safety improvements, PHMSA officials said they have not established performance measures for those outcomes because some of the changes have long-term compliance deadlines, and so data are not yet available to assess effectiveness. However, other changes have shorter-term deadlines for compliance and PHMSA could use data it already collects from operators for its assessment. Without performance measures, PHMSA cannot determine whether the changes made by the 2019 Rule are achieving their intended outcomes and contributing to PHMSA's safety goals. Why GAO Did This Study The U.S. hazardous liquid pipeline network runs for over 220,000 miles and is a critical component of the nation's economy. Pipelines are considered to be a relatively safe mode of transporting crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other hazardous liquids, but accidents can occur that result in loss of life and environmental damage. PHMSA, within the Department of Transportation (DOT), sets the federal minimum pipeline safety standards and generally ensures operator compliance. In 2016, a pipeline safety statute included a provision for GAO to report on hazardous liquid pipeline safety after PHMSA issued a specific final rule amending its safety regulations, which it did in 2019. This report examines: (1) perspectives of selected pipeline stakeholders on the benefits and challenges of the amendments made by the 2019 Rule and (2) steps PHMSA has taken to inform stakeholders of these amendments and to measure their effects on pipeline safety. GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations; analyzed PHMSA accident data from calendar years 2011-2020; interviewed 11 pipeline operators—selected by pipeline type, miles, and product type—as well as pipeline industry and safety stakeholders, and PHMSA and pipeline safety officials from six states.
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  • Medtronic to Pay Over $9.2 Million To Settle Allegations of Improper Payments to South Dakota Neurosurgeon
    In Crime News
    Minnesota-based medical device maker Medtronic USA Inc. has agreed to pay $8.1 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by paying kickbacks to induce a South Dakota neurosurgeon to use certain Medtronic products, the Department of Justice announced today. Medtronic also agreed to pay an additional $1.11 million to resolve allegations that it violated the Open Payments Program by failing to accurately report payments it made to the neurosurgeon to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).
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  • United States Joins Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Ned Price, Department [Read More…]
  • USDA Market Facilitation Program: Information on Payments for 2019
    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) distributed about $14.4 billion in 2019 Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments to farming operations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. According to USDA, these payments were intended to offset the effects of trade disruptions and tariffs targeting a variety of U.S. agricultural products. FSA distributed these payments to 643,965 farming operations. The average MFP payment per farming operation for 2019 was $22,312 but varied by county, ranging from $44 to $295,299. MFP payments for 2019 also varied by type of commodity. Three types of commodities were eligible for 2019 MFP payments: (1) nonspecialty crops (including grains and oilseeds, such as corn and soybeans); (2) specialty crops (including nuts and fruits, such as pecans and cranberries); and (3) dairy and hogs. Most of the 2019 MFP payments went to farming operations that produced nonspecialty crops. Less than 10 percent went to farming operations that produced specialty crops or dairy and hogs. USDA made approximately $519 million in additional MFP payments for 2019 compared with 2018 because of increases in payment limits—the cap on payments that members of farming operations can receive. FSA distributed these additional MFP payments to about 10,000 farming operations across 39 states. The amount of additional MFP payments that FSA distributed for 2019 varied by location. Farming operations in five states—Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota—received almost half of all additional payments. In May 2019, USDA announced it would distribute up to $14.5 billion in direct payments to farming operations that were affected by trade disruptions, following the approximately $8.6 billion USDA announced it had distributed for 2018. USDA referred to these 2018 and 2019 payments as the MFP. In comparison with 2018, USDA changed the 2019 payment structure for the three types of commodities that were eligible for payments. For example, USDA increased the payment limit for each of these three types. GAO was asked to review the distribution of MFP payments for 2019. This report examines, among other things, MFP payments for 2019 and how they varied by location, farming operation, and type of commodity, as well as additional MFP payments for 2019 compared with 2018 that resulted from increased payment limits. To accomplish these objectives, GAO analyzed data from USDA and interviewed agency officials knowledgeable about the data. For more information, contact Steve Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.
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  • The United States and Ukraine: Strategic Partners
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Department Press Briefing – March 4, 2021
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Ned Price, Department [Read More…]
  • Man Purchased Lamborghini After Receiving $3.9 Million in PPP Loans
    In Crime News
    A Florida man pleaded guilty today for fraudulently obtaining approximately $3.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and using those funds, in part, to purchase a $318,000 Lamborghini sports car for himself. Authorities seized the Lamborghini and $3.4 million from the bank accounts of David T. Hines, 29, of Miami, at the time of his arrest. Hines pleaded guilty today to one count of wire fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 14.
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  • Palau Travel Advisory
    In Travel
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