Jan. 13, 2005 – The federal agency tasked with evaluating workplace complaints among US government employees is once again coming under fire for suspicious practices, this time from its own employees, who claim that the man President Bush appointed ostensibly to protect whistleblowers and other workers is engaged in punishing critics within his own office in order to stock it with friendly new hires.
According to public employee advocacy organizations and a lawyer representing staff of the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC), some twelve people -- more than a fifth of the officeâ€™s investigative and legal staff -- face the choice of moving to a distant city within two months or losing their jobs.
Some of the affected employees have retained an attorney and complained to three nongovernmental organizations that specialize in advocating for the rights of government employees who bring allegations of misconduct against government agencies. The workersâ€™ representatives say the affected employees have reason to believe that the reassignments amount to an attempted "purge." They further suggest that Special Counsel Scott Bloch is gradually doing away with his critics while making way for pliant, fresh-faced replacements, fitting a pattern of "cronyism" they allege he has engaged in throughout most of his thirteen-month tenure as head of OSC.
Bloch did not issue the reassignments with the expectation that the employees would accept them, said Tony Vergnetti, a partner at the private practice Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux & Roth, P.C. and an expert in federal employment law. Vergnetti is representing "several" of the twelve employees who received transfer orders last week.
Federal employees concerned that they are being punished for speaking out on the job turn to the Office of Special Counsel for assistance, but OSC staff have no direct recourse for registering such a complaint of their own.
"Our clients feel very strongly that the reasons proffered by the OSC -- and weâ€™re seeing different ones each day -- are just completely unfounded," Vergnetti told The NewStandard, noting that the affected staff were offered just ten days to accept the transfer, two weeks to find new housing at least halfway across the country, and 60 days to report to their new assignments.
Contrary to a statement in a recent OSC press release that "extensive discussions with [OSC] staff" preceded the decision to transfer a dozen employees to OSC field offices in Detroit, Houston and Oakland, Vergnetti said that the relocation announcement "took everybody by surprise." The affected workersâ€™ advocates say that not one of them -- including senior OSC staffers who have served under Blochâ€™s predecessors -- was consulted on the move.
Furthermore, no call for relocation volunteers preceded the decision, and Bloch has reportedly refused to allow other staff to voluntarily take the places of those ordered to relocate to new assignments.
Vergnetti said the relocation announcement was "very upsetting" to his clients. "Ten days to decide is completely unreasonable," he said, since many of the workers "have well-established family lives" and roots in the DC area.
Although Vergnetti stopped short of explicitly questioning the motives behind Blochâ€™s move, Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), was more willing to speculate. PEER has long been critical of Bloch for what the group calls "crony" hiring practices and his refusal to release documents pertaining to personnel decisions.
Since assuming office, Ruch told TNS, Bloch has exclusively filled openings at OSC with non-civil service employees appointed without competition, including many fresh out of the Christian conservative Ave Maria Law School. Ruch also said Bloch has employed no-bid contractors, an unusual practice at OSC.
All of the staff directly affected by unilateral relocation orders are career civil service workers, according to both Vergnetti and Ruch. None of the Blochâ€™s own appointees has been told to move. "The best we can figure," Ruch said, speaking for PEER, "is that if [Bloch] didn't appoint them, he suspects their loyalty."
Normally, federal employees concerned that they are being punished for speaking out on the job, or for any other illegitimate reason, would turn to the Office of Special Counsel for assistance in seeking redress. Staff of OSC themselves, however, have no direct recourse for registering such a complaint of their own within the system.
"Our biggest concern is [that] OSCâ€¦ is not policed by any governmental agency other than Congress," Vergnetti told TNS. "So, to ensure that [OSC] complies with [workplace] laws, the employees are really left without any meaningful forum to question or challenge the legitimacy of these reassignments."
With no other agency to turn to, the employees are hoping for congressional intervention. "Their sole avenue to keep this train from leaving the station," Vergnetti said, "is that Congress will conduct some sort of oversight hearing or some sort of investigation into the reassignments."
Toward that end, three independent organizations have written a joint letter to Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, heads of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight, the body directly responsible for the Office of Special Counsel.
In addition to PEER, the letter is signed by the Project on Government Oversight and the Government Accountability Project.
According to the groups, Blochâ€™s actions threaten to "transform the OSC from an independent agency whose mission is to protect the merit system, into a role model for destroying it."
The advocacy groups also say they have "every reason to believe that the employees directly affected by the â€˜reorganizationâ€™ have been deliberately targeted to make way for Mr. Blochâ€™s own hand-picks. Virtually all of the employees affected are individuals who either work under, or have themselves dared to engage in even mild private discussions with Mr. Bloch over the advisability of management and policy decisions he has made over the last twelve months."
The letter goes on to state that OSC employees, "whose morale is now at an all-time low," have been "living in a culture of fear" since Bloch issued a gag order to employees, forbidding staff -- part of whose job, ironically, is to protect whistleblowers -- from discussing OSC policy outside the agency.
Two federal employeesâ€™ unions joined the call this week. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 workers, issued a statement demanding an investigation. The National Treasury Employees Union made a similar call on Wednesday.
Bloch has faced considerable criticism from PEER and others in the past. When he was nominated to head the Office of Special Counsel, Bloch was helping run the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives at the Department of Justice. The special counsel is itself an appointed position with a fixed, five-year term of office. Ostensibly to protect the independence of the agency, the special counsel cannot be unseated unless convicted of a crime.
Last year even the Bush administration, under pressure from gay rights activists and members of Congress, rebuked Blochâ€™s conservative ways, criticizing the special counselâ€™s suggestion that discrimination against federal employees based on their sexual orientation is permissible.
But nearly a year later, and despite having issued an apparent retraction of the change, language protecting federal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation remains absent from OSC literature.
Blochâ€™s spokesperson, Cathy Deeds, failed to return several calls and an email on the matter of Blochâ€™s relocation orders, but speaking to the Washington Post she called charges that they are punitive "outrageous and inaccurate."
OSC employees issued relocation orders on January 7 have been told they must give Bloch their answer by Monday. PEER and the other groups argue it would be more efficient to fill openings in the other workplaces, including the as-yet-unopened Detroit field office, with an allotment Congress recently gave the OSC to hire seven new employees, rather than shuffling so many settled workers around.