U.S. Education Department CIO Comes Under Fire for Unethical, Illegal Behavior

The acting education secretary denied that the CIO did anything wrong, despite a thorough report from the Inspector General's Office.

by / February 3, 2016 0
Education Department Chief Information Officer Dr. Danny Harris testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on 'U.S. Department of Education: Investigation of the CIO' on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. AP Photo/Molly Riley

It took more than four hours for a U.S. House of Representatives committee to get some straight answers on what's been going on at the U.S. Education Department under CIO Danny Harris. And even then, three witnesses from the department still used circular reasoning to evade being pinned down.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony and cross-examined four witnesses on Tuesday, Feb. 2, as representatives looked into Harris' conduct and the security of the department's information systems.  

This hearing is a follow-up to a November hearing that looked into the state of the department's information technology and its compliance with several acts, as well as the inspector general's recommendations. While the November hearing only addressed what was going on with information technology, the spotlight shifted in this hearing to Harris' personal conduct and his job performance.

As Deputy Inspector General Sandra D. Bruce testified, two anonymous complaints in 2011 and 2012 prompted the Inspector General's Office at the U.S. Education Department to investigate Harris' conduct. The criminal investigation found a number of problems:

  • Harris ran two side businesses in home theater installation and car detailing with some of his subordinates.
  • He failed to report more than $10,000 in income from these businesses on his financial disclosure report and his taxes.
  • He used his Education Department email account to conduct business.
  • He participated in a contract panel even though someone he knew owned the business that was vying for the contract.
  • He loaned $4,000 to one of his subordinates. 

When the preliminary results went to the U.S. Education Department for administrative action, not much happened. He received counsel from then-acting Deputy Secretary John King — as he had received from his two predecessors — and from the assistant general counsel for ethics, Susan Winchell. Meanwhile, the U.S. District Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia did not prosecute any of these issues because administrative remedies were available. 

Despite the findings in this report, Winchell said during the hearing that she did not see anything wrong with what Harris did, and now-Acting Secretary John King indicated the same. In fact, King repeatedly dodged questions about whether Harris did anything wrong, saying that Harris showed significant lapses of judgment, that the activity in question stopped in 2013 and that he relied on the general counsel's recommendations. 

Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, lambasted King for his failure to recognize that Harris violated law, regulation or policy by not reporting outside income above $200. He also shot down King's attempts to say that they had great success with their cybersecurity efforts, which also came under fire at the previous hearing, particularly for lack of compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act, the Federal Information Technology Reform Act and the recommendations of the inspector general. 

The department's Federal Student Aid system still has more than 1 million lines of code on COBOL —  an old coding language —  and the department still uses 54 software programs that are no longer supported by vendors. And it hasn't upgraded everything to two-factor authentication or removed personally identifiable information from a public-facing education locator project.

Furthermore, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., couldn't believe that while the IT operations Harris oversaw received failing performance evaluations, he still received up to $17,000 bonuses each year.

"There is no reason, Mr. King, why Mr. Harris should not be fired," Mica said. "I don't think you could find more ineptness or misconduct with any senior employee that's come before us, and then rewarded for it. It's so offensive."

Harris admitted in his testimony that he used poor judgment and was aware that his impartiality could be questioned based on his actions. But he argued that he learned from the experience and hasn't repeated any of his mistakes. 

He also disputed that he ran side businesses, calling them hobbies. He amended his tax returns for four years to reflect the money he earned from those businesses. And he is no longer friends with the owner of the company that was awarded a contract.

But his answers to their questions didn't satisfy the committee. In fact, they seemed outraged at his conduct, and at the conduct of King.

"You didn't think we were taking this seriously — you're making a fundamental mistake," Chaffetz said. "We will continue to pursue this."

After the hearing, Federal News Radio reported that Harris collapsed and was taken to the hospital, but was stable and conscious on Tuesday evening. 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.