US education official apologizes for poor judgment, behavior

AP News
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Posted: Feb 01, 2016 8:03 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior Education Department official apologized ahead of a congressional oversight hearing for what he acknowledged was poor judgment and "unacceptable" behavior related to working on his side businesses with subordinates, failing to pay taxes on his profits and awarding a government contract to a friend's company.

The department's chief information officer, Danny Harris, received counseling but was not expected to receive any further punishment. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges related to his acknowledged failure to report income from his side business to the Internal Revenue Service.

The ethics complaints against Harris were the subject of a hearing scheduled Tuesday by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It represented the first detailed public discussion of the 2013 investigation by the Education Department's inspector general.

The inspector general concluded that Harris operated businesses for home theater 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 prepared testimony by Deputy Inspector General Sandra D. Bruce.

Harris also took actions to help a relative get a job at the department, where the relative worked from 2010 through 2013. Harris also made a $4,000 loan to a subordinate.

"I fully understand and take responsibility for how some of my actions could allow questions to arise about my impartiality," Harris said in testimony prepared for the hearing. "The actions I took showed that I used poor judgment and I deeply regret those actions."

Acting Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., who joined the department last year, was testifying for the first time since becoming head of the department in January. He said that Harris' actions "reflect a serious lack of judgment" and that he had also counseled Harris.

"I stated my expectation that Dr. Harris ensure that absolutely no questions or issues of appearance arise again in the future," King said.

Harris, who started with the department as an intern in 1985, received counseling 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.

In June, the department's acting deputy secretary said Harris didn't violate the law or agency regulations. He said Harris had displayed lapses in judgment, but Harris had received counseling and written guidance.

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.

"At no time, however, did my personal relationships cloud my professional judgment," he said.

Harris said he has stopped installing home theater equipment, is no longer friends with the owner of the company that won the Education Department contract and doesn't accept money 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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