Saturday, April 21, 2001

McAteer ousted to senator's chagrin

Labor secretary won't keep board member

The Associated Press

        J. Davitt McAteer, who was involved in the overhaul of coal-dust testing in mines, will leave his post Friday on the board that reviews rejected black-lung claims — against the wishes of a key coal-state senator.

        Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., urged Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in a letter last week to reconsider Mr. McAteer's removal from the Labor Department's Benefits Review Board.

        Mr. Byrd wrote Ms. Chao that “the effectiveness of the Benefits Review Board is of utmost importance to me and my constituents,” and “I am concerned that the loss of a valuable member will negatively impact the timely handling of claims.”

        Mr. McAteer, Mr. Byrd wrote, “is keenly aware of and knowledgeable about black-lung disease. He shares your desire that miners and their families not be subject to unnecessary delays.”

        The board reviews rejected black-lung claims from miners and workers' compensation claims from longshoremen and civilian employees at defense facilities.

        Mr. McAteer joined the board on Jan. 3 after heading the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which last year issued new rules under which the federal government was to assume responsibility for testing coal-dust levels in mines. President Bush has put the rules on hold pending a review.

        Mr. McAteer's dismissal from the review board after so short a time was attacked by the head of an advocacy group for miner benefits as a political move by the Bush White House to punish its enemies.

        “That is a very, very low blow,” Lewis Fitch, the president of the National Black Lung Association, said Thursday of Mr. McAteer's removal.

        Ms. Chao, in her letter to Mr. McAteer, gave no reason for removing him, and Mr. McAteer declined to comment on why he thinks he was let go.

        Steven Law, Ms. Chao's chief of staff, said Mr. McAteer “was a political appointee ... who kind of burrowed in at the last minute” before President Clinton left office.

        “It's a common practice in departing administrations” for political appointees to seek shelter in other jobs, Mr. Law said. He added that it also has been common practice for new administrations to weed out political appointees who “try to convert to career status.”

        The five board members, called judges, serve at the pleasure of the secretary of labor but, under federal rules, get civil service status after three years and then are entitled to another federal job if removed, said Thomas Shepherd, the board's clerk.

        Board members typically serve long tenures. The last removal from the board was in 1984.

        The Clinton administration chose not to remove two Reagan appointees: Regina McGranery, on the board since 1985, and Roy Smith, a member since 1984. The chief judge, Betty Jean Hall, was appointed by Mr. Clinton in 1994, and acting judge Malcolm Dwayne Nelson in 1998.


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