State Stonewalls Congress on Embassy Oversight

Allegations of mismanagement at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa go unaddressed.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The U.S. State Department
The U.S. State Department is seen in Washington on Nov. 29, 2010. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Two top lawmakers said the U.S. State Department is blocking their efforts to investigate allegations of management and ethics issues at one of the United States’ largest and most important embassies in Africa, according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy.

Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to a senior State Department official raising concerns about the U.S. Embassy in South Africa. For nearly three months, the State Department responded to their requests for information on “management and ethics practices” at the embassy with “incomplete” information that “failed to address many aspects of our queries,” the letter said.

The lawmakers’ concerns center on disputed allegations of whether President Donald Trump’s ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, sought to give her son heightened job responsibilities at the embassy and had the top career diplomat at the embassy, Deputy Chief of Mission David Young, removed from his post, as Foreign Policy previously reported. A senior U.S. Embassy official called the allegations that she tried to give her son a senior role in the embassy “totally false” and separate from Young’s departure. 

Marks is a successful fashion designer with no prior diplomatic experience who has previously served on the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Women’s Leadership Board and as a lecturer at Georgetown University’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. Her ties to Trump come from her membership of the president’s private Mar-a-Lago club.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have made a practice of tapping political associates or deep-pocketed campaign donors without prior government experience to be ambassadors, but Trump has appointed a higher percentage of political connections than most presidents.

Multiple U.S. officials told Foreign Policy that the U.S. diplomatic mission in South Africa, including the embassy and three consulates, is suffering from morale and management issues. Some attribute the blame to the new ambassador, although an internal State Department watchdog report recorded allegations of bullying and mismanagement months before Marks ever arrived at the embassy. 

The letter sheds light on a growing trend of senior career diplomats at U.S. embassies abroad being removed by Trump’s politically appointed ambassadors amid tensions and mistrust between administration leaders and career civil servants. Trump’s envoys in Canada, France, Iceland, Romania, and the United Kingdom have all removed their deputy chiefs of mission—a position that goes to experienced senior foreign service officers—early.

It also reflects the souring relationship between the State Department and lawmakers, as the State Department regularly spurns requests for documents, meetings, and briefings on a variety of issues for lawmakers overseeing the department.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Read the full letter here:

The letter provides a detailed timeline on how House Foreign Affairs Committee staff repeatedly, and often unsuccessfully, pressed the State Department for further information on the embassy. The department took weeks to respond in some cases, and it gave only partial answers, according to Engel and McCaul in the letter to the department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale.

“On January 24, the Department provided a response to Committee questions—some of which had been outstanding for more than six weeks—but it was incomplete and failed to address many aspects of our queries,” they wrote. 

The lawmakers said they haven’t received a response to repeated requests for State Department officials to brief them on ethics and management issues at the embassy. They gave the State Department a deadline of Feb. 12 to find a date for briefings with former embassy officials and other State Department officials looking into the embassy’s management and ethics issues. One congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they wouldn’t be surprised if the department blew past the deadline without responding. 

In recent interviews, Marks has touted her background as a successful fashion designer with no government experience as an asset, not a hindrance. She has said she is regularly working long hours at the embassy since arriving at the post several months ago, prioritizing boosting trade ties between South Africa and the United States while in office. 

In a statement to Foreign Policy, Marks said her deputy chief of mission had a “quite different” management style from hers and she felt it appropriate for him to take a new position. She called him a “tremendously capable diplomat” and said, “I only wish him the very best in the future.”

Ambassadors have full authority to remove their deputy chiefs of mission, although current and former diplomats say it is happening with increasing frequency in the Trump administration.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer