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The Journal Gazette

  • McWatters

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Thursday, May 17, 2018 1:00 am

Breach of public trust

No-show NCUA chair needs to resign or be fired

Jill Long Thompson

Jill Long Thompson represented northeast Indiana in Congress from 1989 to 1994, serving on the Committee on Agriculture. She is now a visiting clinical associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington.

It is reasonable for us to expect the head of a federal agency to show up for work. And yet, the chair of the National Credit Union Administration Board, J. Mark McWatters, is not doing that. McWatters is paid $174,500 a year as head of the independent federal agency whose mission is ensuring the safety and soundness of our country's credit union system, but he is rarely seen at his office. Credit union members deserve better. He should step down.

According to an investigative report published in the Washington Post on May 11, McWatters works from his home in Dallas, even though his office is in agency headquarters just outside Washington, D.C. His spokesman said he only shows up for monthly board meetings and other occasions when duties require him to be there.

But, by statute, his board chairmanship is a full-time position. The NCUA Employee Handbook, as well as the agency's website, clearly state that his duty station is the NCUA central office in Alexandria, Virginia. And one could reasonably conclude he thinks the office is important since he had the agency spend $22,000 for new furniture when he was first appointed.

As the former board chair and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration, the independent regulatory agency for the Farm Credit System and the agency that many years ago had oversight of credit unions, I find it appalling that McWatters has such a cavalier attitude toward his responsibilities. Ensuring the safety and soundness of the country's member-owned credit unions is not a small job. His agency employs about 1,200 people, and their annual operating budget is almost $300 million.

According to their Dec. 31, 2017 end-of-quarter report, the agency oversees 5,573 federally insured credit unions with total assets of $1.38 trillion and total membership of 111.3 million people. McWatters also has a responsibility to taxpayers because the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, operated and managed by NCUA, is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

While it is appalling that McWatters has exhibited such disregard for his official responsibilities, I cannot say I am completely surprised. Shortly after being appointed by President Barack Obama to serve at the Farm Credit Administration, I discovered the board had previously adopted a formal board-member-specific policy that appeared to conflict with the law. This policy allowed board members whose terms had expired but whose position had not yet been filled to work from their homes. It also provided for the FCA to reimburse them for transportation and lodging when they traveled to and from the office for board meetings or other events.

When I questioned the policy, I was told it was adopted because it was difficult for a board member who did not know when his or her last day of service would be to decide whether to continue leasing an apartment in the Washington area. That is true. But Congress writes the laws.

I had some familiarity with the language of the Farm Credit Act, the law that covers the Farm Credit System and the FCA. The statute states: “The members of the Board shall devote full time and attention to the business of the Board.” When Congress wrote and adopted that language, the intent was for board members to show up at work. The duty station for the FCA board members is the national headquarters in McLean, Virginia. I worked with my fellow board members and we officially rolled back that policy.

It is an honor to serve in high public office, and those who are privileged to do so should serve with honor. In 1989, through an executive order, President George H.W. Bush issued the Fourteen Principles of Ethical Conduct for Government Officers and Employees. They include the following statement: “Public service is a public trust.”

By not showing up for work while collecting $174,500 a year in salary, J. Mark McWatters has violated the public's trust. He must step down. If he does not, then President Donald Trump must remove him for cause.