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  • I ran into Jan a couple weeks ago when the District Managers were all in town. Jan is our longest-tenured District Manager, one of the originals from when the district offices were formed in 1997. He was telling me he’d been to Jimmy B.’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey that Saturday, and a bunch of the old crew from the Northeastern Regional Office in Philly were there, and there were stories. He mentioned some of the old names, and he said, “And there were stories about you, too – in fact, it seemed like you were right in the middle of all the good stories from that place.” Yeah, we had a real cast of characters in that office, and the stories from back then are so many, and so intertwined, I haven’t really gotten into many of them yet, here on Cowbird. Where to start? Who would believe some of them?

    I have had the good fortune of working in three different offices in my career with USDA that were really “family” types of environments, where the people genuinely cared about each other, the job was so much more than just a job, and great story-lines were daily occurrences. Of course, those “family”-type environments usually come complete with typical family dysfunctions. This was true of all three of these offices.

    Philly was the first, and longest tenured, of these experiences. I was there for 12 years, from 1984 to 1996. I started there at the lowest graded position in the office (GS-4), and I left in the highest graded position (GS-13), aside from the executive director position. Prior to working there, I had gone through 17 jobs in the previous 4 years. I had no reason to believe I would stay there as long as I did. I have been with the same agency now for nearly 29 years. How crazy is that?

    I’ve already talked about how I narrowly escaped getting fired 6 months into my job there (see the story this one is sprouted from, “How I Became a Loyal Employee”). My boss back then, Bill K., had surely earned my blind loyalty, but in many ways, he was the kind of boss that you learned more about what not to do as a boss, than what to do. And, I did. When I became a supervisor myself, moving into his job after he left, I generally would ask myself, “What would Bill do?”, and then do the opposite. This usually worked. He was a great mentor in that way!

    With Bill, you often got the sense that he thought he was still back in Catholic School. He carried this snarky, “better than thou” attitude towards just about everyone else in the office, and ultimately, that did not serve him, or us, well at all. He took pretty good care of his own staff, but other folks around the office resented him, and he unnecessarily made a lot of enemies over petty little things. He made things more difficult for people, rather than easier, and that made for a lot of unhappy customers. The problem was, he held everyone else up to a higher standard, but didn’t necessarily always live up to that standard, himself. He did a lot of talking, but didn’t walk the talk. This always made for an interesting dynamic.
  • In addition to the Philadelphia office, we had 6 Area Offices around the Northeast corridor that we were responsible for, located in Laconia, NH, New York City, Ft. Washington, Pa, Harrisburg, Pa, Albany, NY, and Hyattsville, Md. It had been decided to close the office in Laconia, and move it to Boston, Ma. Bill and I went up to secure the space in Boston, then drove up to Laconia to help with closing up that office. He had asked me if I liked to ski – I hadn’t been skiiing since I was much younger, but I said “sure.” We planned to each take a day of Annual Leave (Vacation time) after we were done in Laconia, and drove over to do some skiing at Killington, in Vermont.

    He was the boss, and I didn’t know all the rules governing the use of government vehicles at that point – I was more involved on the supply, space and procurement side of the house, so didn’t really have to know much about Vehicles – so, I just assumed that everything was kosher with his plan. I would later learn that it was definitely not kosher to use a government vehicle to go spend a day at a ski slope, even if we were on our own annual leave time for that day! I have since fired people for such infractions.

    But, as I said, he was the boss, and I was just along for the ride. We’d gotten a couple of rooms at a little chalet type hotel, that had an outdoor jacuzzi that you could run through the snow and jump into after a long day of skiing, that had rooms at the government rate. That part was kosher – as a government employee, you’re allowed to accept the government rate for rooms whether or not you are staying there on official business. You can’t get government rates on things like airfare, but rooms are o.k.

    The plan was to skii all day, stay at the chalet overnight, then hit the road for home the next morning. That night, Vermont got hit with its worst blizzard in 17 years. Our route out of there, I-91, was closed. We were stranded at Killington. We had to spend another day and another night. We had to ski in great, fresh real snow, during a driving blizzard! (That was really tough!)

    I loved every minute of it. I even loved it when I got stranded on the ski lift, about 150 feet in the air, and had to be lowered down by strapping myself into a leather belt-harness at the end of a rope they had to sling up over the skii lift cable to get me down – all in a driving blizzard. That was an awesome experience.
  • Somehow, most people in the office didn’t realize I was with Bill on that trip, so I never got questioned about it. But, apparently, several people caught wind that he had spent a couple of days using the government car for personal business, and the rest of his time in that office, he was dodging questions about it, lying to people, and narrowly avoided a full scale investigation on it.

    I only found out about all of this after he left the office, and my new boss, who was one of his enemies in the office, asked me if I knew anything about it. “Oh, you mean that time we went over to Killington after we closed up Laconia? When we got stranded in the snowstorm? That was great!” I had no idea what kind of trouble we could have gotten into.

    The new boss decided that, what was done was done, and Bill was gone, so he didn’t pursue an investigation. Probably a good thing for Bill, since he had gone over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Department of Justice, and they were very strict about following the rules over there.

    This was how I learned the rules about proper use of a government vehicle – a valuable lesson to learn!
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