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A Personnel Tragedy

Charles William Thomas was a bright mid-career Foreign Service officer who was selected out because his efficiency report was mixed with a poorer officer of the same name. After his lifelong dream of serving in the State Department came crashing down, Thomas committed suicide and his case became a cause celebre. His wife Cynthia held the Foreign Service and the State Department responsible. She herself eventually was allowed to become an FSO but her fight cost a high-ranking official a promotion.

The Thomas case led to changes in the promotion and personnel system and helped usher in a grievance program at the Department. This occurred at the time the Alison Palmer case was fighting discrimination against women and the two cases brought about numerous long-term changes to the Foreign Service.(A 2013 book asserts that Thomas uncovered details about Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in Mexico, including his affair with a Mexican woman who was a supporter of dictator Fidel Castro.)

Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr., who worked in the State Department’s Operations Analysis Office, was interviewed in 1995, recalls Charles and Cynthia Thomas’s struggle against the Foreign Service and the State Department and the consequences it had for the individuals as well as the Foreign Service personnel system. He and Samuel F. Hart, who was the Economic Officer in Costa Rica in 1971 was interviewed in 1992, comment on the State Department’s dealing with Cynthia Thomas as a rather “cowardly” manner of removing a “pinprick.”

Robert Curran (1998) worked in the Personnel Management office, William Harrop (1993) was the Director of African Affairs, and Robert Gordon (1989), who was the Special Assistant for Welfare and Grievances, briefly discuss the changes to the personnel file system, the grievances procedure, and the tenure process that was instigated as a result of Thomas’s case. Douglas Martin (1999) was part of the Grievance Program at the State Department at the time and recalls a conversation between Cynthia Thomas and Congressman Wayne Hayes, who was less than sympathetic to her cause. The interviews were all conducted by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy.

Owen Roberts (1991), who served on the Department Board of Examiners, and Michael Boorstein (2005), who was the Administrative Officer in Palermo Italy in 1971, share the case of John Stutesman, who served as the scapegoat. As a result of Cynthia Thomas’s crusade Stutesman lost his bid for ambassadorship. Bruce Gregory (2006) served as the trustee of the Charles William Thomas Memorial Legal Defense Fund and discusses the lawsuits against the selection out process and the Foreign Affairs Specialist (FAS) program. Diplopundit has more on the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

Go here to read about the Alison Palmer case. You can read more about the fight to establish the Family Liaison Office and the lawsuit to allow gays to serve openly in the Foreign Service.


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“You just didn’t fight selection out and you didn’t charge forward. You accepted it as philosophically as possible.”

Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr., State Department’s Operations Analysis Office

GILLESPIE: My recollection is that Charles Thomas entered the Foreign Service through the written examination process….I think that it must have been in the 1950s. Charles was not from the establishment. He was one of those people who came in from a more modest background. My recollection is that he had an excellent, academic background. I think that he had a law degree. He had served either in Korea or elsewhere in the military service. He may have been a pilot, though I’m not sure. Certainly, he had been an officer. (Gillespie pictured at left)

He entered the Foreign Service and, from all appearances, seemed to have a good, if not necessarily an outstanding career path. It turned out that in the early 1960s, or possibly as late as the early 1970s, he was summarily informed that he was being “selected out” of the Foreign Service. My recollection is that he decided that he would not take being selected out lightly.

So he began to look into why he was being selected out. Somehow, he obtained access to his personnel file. In those days getting access to your personnel file was not at all guaranteed. However, by some means, he found out that efficiency reports had not been prepared on him for certain periods of time. Some of those which had been done were either inaccurate or contained outright falsehoods of one kind or another. So he really charged forward with this case, trying to prevent his own selection out….

This was at a time when it just wasn’t done that way. This was supposedly not what happened in the Foreign Service. You just didn’t fight selection out and you didn’t charge forward. You accepted it as philosophically as possible. Charles Thomas was very tenacious.

Although I had met him, I was not directly involved but was on the fringes of his case through the Junior Foreign Service Officer Club (JFSOC) and the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). The JFSOC people really jumped on this case, probably a lot more firmly than AFSA. My recollection is that AFSA itself didn’t quite know how to deal with it. It was the old boy network.

Thomas was not an old man. He was still in his 40s. He hadn’t hit 50 yet. In any event he carried his fight against his selection out forward as far as he could. At some point in late 1970 or early 1971 he basically lost the case. He was told, “You’re out of here.” Now, my recollection is that he was a senior FSO-4 in the old system, which is equivalent to today’s FS-02. That is, a middle grade officer. He did not apparently have any means of his own. He was married to an American woman who was dramatic and an artist — Cynthia Thomas.

The two of them, Charles and Cynthia Thomas, were just devastated by this development. My wife and I got to know the Thomases socially. We were never intimate friends but we knew and saw them, say, once every two or three weeks during this period. However, it came as a total surprise in April 1971 when he shot and killed himself.

We all know what happens when an incident like this takes place. That event, and not the substance of his appeal from selection out, was the trigger of a major uproar. All of a sudden the Charles Thomas case became a cause celebre. People jumped on it. To make a long story short, as a result, a number of changes were instituted in the Foreign Service personnel system, in terms of access to personnel files, things that might or might not be said in efficiency reports, the opportunity to present a grievance case initially or eventually about the absence of efficiency reports or the presence of extraneous material in efficiency reports.

Cynthia Thomas carried on her late husband’s fight. She was not going to let it die

Q: I even think that there was some mix-up. There was another Charles Thomas in the Foreign Service. [Charles Howard Thomas II, born in New York on June 23, 1934, and married to Lourana SwiFort. He was promoted to FSO-3 in June 1974.] The personnel files are not always the best kept records.

GILLESPIE:…The Thomas Case has another interesting aspect and it came up later in my experience. It was the first time that I personally saw how the Foreign Service and the State Department, in its own fashion, dealt with spouses.

In this case Cynthia Thomas carried on her late husband’s fight. She was not going to let it die. She enlisted a lot of support — lawyers outside the Foreign Service and people inside the Service. She is probably responsible in many ways for some of the changes which did take place in the system.

Initially, the Foreign Service and the State Department were certainly not happy with what she was doing, although they didn’t try to shut her up. They didn’t like it. It wasn’t the right thing to do. She went to the press, and there were a lot of things said.

Eventually, in its own, inimitable way, the system hired Cynthia Thomas and brought her on board as a full-time employee, I think initially as a Foreign Service Reserve Officer. [FYI – She was commissioned an FSR-5 in May 1971, according to the 1974 issue of the Department’s Biographic Register.)

They tried to send her overseas, perhaps with the idea that they would look as if they were doing something nice, and, secondly, they might be removing a little bit of a pinprick from the system or something worse than a pinprick. This practice came up later in several ways, often done in what I am convinced was a truly humanitarian gesture, or sometimes done, as in the case of Cynthia Thomas, with the idea, “Well, let’s do something nice and also solve a problem for ourselves.”

There’s not a whole lot more to say about this case, except to say that it struck me, during my formative years in the Foreign Service, as a case where you could see, on the one hand and particularly in the way Charles and later Cynthia Thomas were dealt with, a very impersonal or apparently very impersonal way of avoiding rocking the boat or making waves. What Charles and Cynthia Thomas had done was simply not the kind of thing that was done in the Foreign Service of the United States of America if you expect or want to prosper and be promoted.

“That was a buy-off by cowardly management, to try to keep her quiet”

Samuel F. Hart, Economic Officer, Costa Rica, 1971

Q: Well, John Harter was selected out and has been appealing it ever since, I think. Cynthia Thomas’s husband had been selected out…

HART: All these people really had one aim in mind, and that was to try to destroy the career Foreign Service, because they felt that the system had somehow done them wrong. AFSA’s goal was to strengthen the career Foreign Service. So you had a basic conflict there.

Funny enough, Cynthia Thomas eventually joined the Foreign Service, through the back door, because of the cowardice of the State Department Personnel people. She was given, first, I think, GS [Government Service] status, then FSR status, and then converted to FSO, for which she was totally unqualified in any way…

That was a buy-off by cowardly management, to try to keep her quiet.

Cleaning up the files

Robert Curran, Personnel Management 

CURRAN: [Charles Thomas] was “TICed” (“Time in Class,” i.e., retired involuntarily because he spent too long at one grade without getting promoted). What I understood – and this was before I came into PER [Personnel] — he was separated out before he was entitled to a pension. Thomas was so despondent he took his own life. And when his file was reviewed, it was just a mess.…

To address the file mess, somebody — probably Bob [Robert Charles, later Inspector General] Brewster, who knew everybody — identified a wonderful lady, retired, I think, a clerical professional, named Frances Bourne. And she agreed to come on board, and she brought with her another wonderful person named Ingeborg Lueders, who had been an administrative officer both in NEA [Near East Asian Affairs Bureau] and overseas.

Together and with my fabulous deputy, Ken Hartung, PER designed a way to clean those files up. And Fran Bourne developed a new system. All files were put in order and then microfilmed, so one couldn’t switch papers around. Before this, files might go to the selection boards [on promotions] and come back, and sometimes things would be missing, through carelessness. The files modernization was done in 18 months.

Fran Bourne was, as somebody who would take that on would have to be, absolutely indefatigable in doing this detail by detail. I have to say — she’s now gone to her reward, which I hope is considerable in the Great Hereafter — she drove me bananas a lot of the time. But she was right every time, and it was wonderful working with her. And the file room — I haven’t been back in several years — was cleaned up, it was painted, it was nicely air-conditioned, nice furniture, and of course it was great for morale. So hats off to Fran Bourne and Inge Lueders.

William Harrop, Director of African Affairs

HARROP: A second phase of all these problems came with the grievance situation, since the Department of State and the Foreign Service had never had an objective grievance/appeal system. There was great concern and anxiety over it. [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs U.] Alexis Johnson, for instance, felt very strongly that “Papa knew best,” that the senior people had to decide these things, and that those affected shouldn’t be able to appeal to objective, third parties. He felt that such matters should be taken care of inside the Foreign Service. We had a very difficult time with this matter.

About that time an officer that had been “selected out” committed suicide, a man named Thomas. [His] wife was embittered. She became very active politically, drumming up Congressional support — Cynthia Thomas. She is quite a capable woman, actually. It was clear that we had to have some kind of objective grievance system in the Foreign Service. Yet we wanted to have it in such a way that it would not destroy the fabric of the Foreign Service. (Pictured: Bill Harrop)

We were able to get a program through, and subsequently into legislation, which, I think, did that. But it was a difficult and divisive issue. On one occasion I sent a circular cable out to ambassadors throughout the world which asked, “Will you support us on this?” We had an overwhelming flow of support from the ambassadors. It was heartwarming, really. That, I think, broke the Department’s opposition.

GORDON: At least one thing came out of that [Charles Thomas case] because I remember when I had been in Personnel before one of the most bitter things I ever had to do was to talk to officers who had been selected out at Class Four or below because in those days, before 1972, if you were a Class Four officer and you got one year’s pay and that was it. You had to be Class Three before you were eligible for a pension.

And this incident, at least, sparked what evolved into the new time in class [TIC] of roughly 20 to 22 years between tenure and being selected out, even if you never got up to the senior Foreign Service. But you name it, somebody had some kind of a complaint.

“Look, Madam, people lose their jobs every day in this country. That’s no reason to commit suicide.”

Douglas Martin, the Grievance Program at the State Department

MARTIN: [Thomas] had a widow who was also a very dramatic type. She testified before a Congressional committee.

Cynthia Thomas and I remember there was a dramatic exchange between her and Congressman Wayne Hayes. I think she had studied dramatics. She was very effective in her presentation of what happened to her husband, which was a tragedy. (You can read more about Congressman Hays and his blonde mistress.)

Hays interrupted her and said, “Look, Madam, people lose their jobs every day in this country. That’s no reason to commit suicide.” It was something rather shocking to say. On the other hand, he was making a point….

As a result the Department was preparing to create some sort of a grievance system. First they established some ad hoc panels to look at what they considered to be extreme cases, as they thought the Thomas case would have been because it was based on an incorrect record. But that got out of hand almost immediately.

These ad hoc panels were recommending that people get promoted and were promoting people. After three or four cases of people getting promoted, the rest of the system got upset. So they set up grievance regulations, and everybody in the Service, more or less, had an opportunity to submit a grievance over anything that had ever happened to them, and there was a certain deadline for that. A lot of grievances were submitted.

“But the Director General’s office wouldn’t put him up for an Ambassadorship”

Owen Roberts, Board of Examiners

ROBERTS: As often, the Service then had many more senior officers than good jobs. They could stay in-grade without dismissal for many years. The upward promotion channel was constricted. John [Stutesman, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Personnel] was told to restructure the time-in-grade system and to institute reform. He did, promptly. People started being caught in shorter time-in-grade and being dismissed.

One of those dismissed was a very nice guy, Charles Thomas.…I had served with him once up at the United Nations and knew how totally involved he was….Because he was a lawyer, from a top school, had passed the D.C. Bar Examination, and there was no way he couldn’t have found other employment and provided for his family.

In the process of raising so much fuss, it became known that John Stutesman was responsible for the changes that indirectly led to Charlie Thomas’s death, and his widow began blaming him personally. Mind you, John had only set up the system; other offices and panels had decided who should be dropped.

But the Director General’s office wouldn’t put him up for an ambassadorship, and the Seventh Floor [where State Department leadership has its offices] agreed there would be questions if his name went to the Senate for any senior job. So he languished, and ultimately was sent as Consul General to [Canada]. True to his standards, he never made the slightest public protest.

 “In 1973, U.S. District Court Judge declared the lack of safeguards in State’s selection-out system unconstitutional”

Bruce Gregory, Trustee of the Charles William Thomas Memorial Legal Defense Fund

GREGORY: In 1969, President Nixon had issued Executive Order 11491 creating a labor-management system for Federal employees. The State Department wanted to prevent its application to the Foreign Service, and AFSA was debating whether and how it should represent Foreign Service employees as a union.

Gene Preston, Harrison Sherwood, Alison Palmer, and a small group of FSOs in State did not think AFSA was dealing effectively with employee concerns. They were particularly interested in developing a Foreign Service labor management system, a statutory grievance procedure, overcoming discrimination against women in the Foreign Service, and due process rules in the Foreign Service system of selection out….

The State Department intervened in hearings before the Federal Labor Relations Council. Deputy Secretary of State for Administration William B. Macomber successfully invoked the “unique relationship of the Foreign Service to the President,” the Foreign Service “rank-in-person” personnel system, and national security requirements as grounds for denying the representation elections….

In 1971, President Nixon issued a “memorandum” that excluded the Foreign Service from the Civil Service labor management system. State and AFSA collaborated in support of Executive Order 11636, which established a Foreign Service “employee-management” system. It granted representation rights to professional associations and provided for “consultations” rather than negotiated collective bargaining agreements….

AFSA defeated AFGE [American Federation of Government Employees] and won representation rights for some 7,000 Foreign Service employees in State, USIA [U.S. Information Agency], and USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development].

With collective bargaining no longer an option, AFGE Locals 1812 in USIA and 1534 in State/USAID created a Foreign Affairs Employees Council. The Council in turn created a legal defense fund; its board of directors also served as the board of the fund.

The fund was named the Charles William Thomas Memorial Legal Defense Fund in memory of Charles Thomas….His file had been mistaken for another FSO with the name Charles Thomas. In the absence of appeals procedures he had been unable to challenge the decision. The Fund’s goal at the outset was to finance two lawsuits:  one against the lack of due process in Foreign Service selection out; the other against implementation of the Foreign Affairs Specialist (FAS) program.

The FAS program sought to bring Civil Service employees in USIA and State into a “rank-in-person” Foreign Service Reserve personnel system. It would give them Foreign Service retirement benefits, but it also would deny them Civil Service protections and subject them to selection out….

For the selection-out due process lawsuit, the Fund retained the prominent Washington law firm Hogan and Hartson. Bill Bittman, famous as the Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted Teamster’s President Jimmy Hoffa, and George Miller were the attorneys who handled the case. In November 1971, Bittman and Miller met the Director General of the Foreign Service and offered not to file suit if State would declare a moratorium on selection out and agree to bargain on due process procedures. State declared a moratorium but declined to bargain. The Fund filed suit.

In 1973, U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell rendered a decision in Lindsey v. Kissinger declaring the lack of procedural safeguards in State’s selection-out system unconstitutional. A Foreign Service Grievance Board with public members was established in 1976, and procedural safeguards were created through consultations with AFSA.

For the FAS program, AFGE and the Fund retained Larry Speiser, a prominent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney. Two lawsuits were filed. AFGE v. Rogers, filed in 1971, led to a preliminary injunction against all conversions from the Civil Service to the Foreign Service Reserve in the foreign affairs agencies.

The injunction held for two years until U.S. District Court Judge Howard Corcoran issued a decision in 1973 granting authority for the program in limited circumstances. State and USIA then proceeded with the FAS program. Together with many other Civil Service employees, I converted from Civil Service to the Foreign Service Reserve….In 1976, State and USIA changed their policy. Those who had converted to the FAS program were given the option to return to the Civil Service and keep their Foreign Service retirement.…

The Fund supported a number of cases. In most cases it helped with pre-litigation research. In some cases it also provided partial funding. In others it filed amicus curiae briefs. Correia v. Kissinger challenged the State Department’s alien spouse regulations. Bradley v. Kissinger sought to overturn mandatory Foreign Service retirement at age 60. Palmer v. Rogers and Palmer v. Kissinger challenged the Department’s discrimination against women in the Foreign Service.