Just about a month after stepping into the acting Education Secretary role, John King was summoned to testify before Congress – but it wasn’t about his confirmation to the president’s cabinet.
King was called on to attest to the competence and conduct of his chief information officer, Danny Harris, who has been at the department for more than 30 years. Harris stepped down Monday amid a cloud of questionable practices.
Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said Harris had long considered retirement, but wanted to stay on through the administration’s cybersecurity sprint. However, insiders told EdScoop that Harris retired so he wouldn’t become a distraction to King’s nomination, which was held in a separate hearing before lawmakers last week.
Harris did not respond to a request for comment. But his departure marked an unceremonious end to a long and noteworthy civil service career.
The 56-year-old federal worker started at the department as a computer analyst, and then moved into the secretary’s office working as a policy analyst. He kept moving up the ranks, overseeing the agency’s multimillion-dollar financial management platform, including contracts, grants and accounting, and then became deputy chief financial officer.
In October 2008, he stepped into the CIO role, where he developed new policies for protecting and controlling information, deployed and maintained enterprise-wide information technology, and oversaw the department’s IT infrastructure. He oversaw more than 135 federal workers and more than 700 contractors, according to his testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
But Harris came under fire from federal lawmakers, first for receiving a failing grade in its IT security efforts, and then for running side businesses and failing to disclose the earnings on his tax forms.
“Simply put, the CIO’s failure to bring high ethical standards to work – institutions suffer, and the data of millions of Americans are in danger,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chastised Harris earlier this month.
But longtime colleagues still support him.
“He ran a hell of a great shop,” said Gloria Parker, former deputy CIO for the Department of Education and CIO of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “He is excellent at what he does.”
Barbara Scott, enterprise architect at General Services Administration, worked with Harris more than a decade ago when he was deputy CFO.
“I just have always had high regard for him – for his integrity, for his decency, for just being
a nice person,” Scott said in an interview with EdScoop. “He knows his job well. I think he did something dumb,
and on the surface, it doesn’t seem that dumb – it’s a side hobby he’s making his
money off of.”
Parker, who now runs her own consulting group, added that interim CIO Steve Grewal will likely face a learning curve, but he’s been deputy for the last several years and is familiar with the needs of the agency.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a drastic fall [when Grewal takes over],” she said. “Danny has been grooming Steve, and he will be great for the job.”
It’s not clear what Harris will do next, though sources said he will likely turn full time to academia during his retirement from government – he already is an adjunct professor at Howard University, where he gets paid about $15,000 annually to teach courses in computer technology.