Top Federal Student-Aid Official Resigns Over Congressional Testimony

Updated (5/24/2017, 8:01 p.m.) with a statement from the department.

A top official at the U.S. Education Department resigned on Tuesday following a dispute over his scheduled testimony this week before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, according to a department official.

James W. Runcie, the chief operating officer of the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, submitted his resignation on Tuesday night. Matthew Sessa, a deputy in the office, will assume Mr. Runcie’s duties “until further notice,” according to a news release announcing the shift. The office recently faced scrutiny over its handling of improper payments in student-loan programs, which were the subject of a critical report this month by the department’s inspector general.

The office has also been dogged by questions related to the outage of the Internal Revenue Service’s data-retrieval tool, which makes it easier to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

In a memo to his colleagues announcing his resignation, Mr. Runcie said he had been “encumbered” in leading the student-aid office because of broader problems in the department. “I cannot in good conscience continue to be accountable as chief operating officer given the risk associated with the current environment at the department,” he wrote. “I have been consistently on record and clear about not testifying at the upcoming hearing on improper payments,” he continued. “In less-dire circumstances, I would consider testifying, as I have done on five previous occasions, including discussions on improper payments.”

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the department said that the student-aid office had “faced a litany of unsolved problems going back years.”

“Congress requested Mr. Runcie to testify, and Mr. Runcie refused to appear,” the statement continued. “The secretary directed Mr. Runcie to comply with the request of Congress and to answer questions regarding oversight within FSA and repeated issues concerning improper payments. He chose to resign rather than face Congress.”

One critic of the DeVos-led department expressed dismay at the news. “It is deeply troubling to see that Department of Education civil servants do not feel they can adequately do their jobs in the current environment under Secretary DeVos and feel the need to resign in protest,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, in a written statement. “This kind of chaos, mismanagement, and undue political interference is not a surprise, but it is still deeply disappointing.”

Republicans in Congress saw the resignation differently, expressing their displeasure with Mr. Runcie’s refusal to testify. “No one employed by the federal government should be immune from accountability, especially someone responsible for overseeing more than $1 trillion in federal student loans,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, in a written statement. “This committee has repeatedly raised concerns about mismanagement within the Office of Federal Student Aid. Mr. Runcie has stood at the center of this mismanagement for years, and our concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears.”

Read Mr. Runcie’s memo below:

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