Government employees who come forward with reports of waste, fraud, abuse, and illegal and dangerous activities are known as whistleblowers. They alert us when something has gone seriously wrong with the bureaucracy, as opposed to the everyday low-level wrongness. Unfortunately, the usual reaction to a whistleblower by his or her management is not a correction of the problem, but rather retaliation: forced transfers, demotions, revocation of security clearances, and even being fired.
Whistleblowers who are retaliated against are supposed to be able to go to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to seek redress. Acting independently, the OSC can force investigations into retaliation and misconduct which whistleblowers report to it. But lately the OSC isn’t such a friendly place to whistleblowers.
“The Office of Special Counsel is supposed to be the agency where whistleblowers can turn to when they have been fired, harassed, demoted, moved to the basement or otherwise retaliated against,” writes Beth Daley, Director of Communication and Development for the Project on Government Oversight. “This theoretical safe haven against retaliation was supposed to provide a counterbalance for whistleblowers who risk losing their jobs, their careers, their homes, and even their marriages.”
Theory and reality, however, diverged after Scott Bloch became Special Counsel.
The Office of Personnel Management Inspector General launched an investigation into Bloch last year after whistleblowers in his own department came forward and exposed his inappropriately steering contracts toward cronies, discriminating against two OSC employees on the basis of their sexual orientation, and clearing the agency’s extensive backlog of cases by inappropriately closing cases without investigating them at all.
Bloch has done a heckuva job at protecting whistleblowers in the federal government, the same way that Michael Brown did a heckuva job at FEMA last year, POGO says — and has collected mountains of documentation to support its case against Bloch.
Bloch has denied the allegations, of course, saying that OSC has become both more efficient and more responsive to whistleblower complaints.
One example OSC cites is Leroy Smith, who it named Public Servant of the Year on Friday. While safety manager at the maximum security federal prison in Atwater, Calif., he learned that the computer recycling program there was exposing prison staff and inmates to potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium.
Smith was retaliated against and came forward to OSC in December of 2004. But he’s since been transferred to another prison, and OSC has closed his case, even though the dangerous program continues, he said.
But his award ceremony was cancelled at the last minute because he intended to speak about exactly that.
“I first reported these safety problems to the Attorney General and the Justice Department IG back in 2004. These offices have direct oversight responsibilities over the Federal Bureau of Prisons. These officials ignored these problems then, and, I am sad to say, seem to be ignoring them now,” said Smith’s prepared remarks (PDF) for the award ceremony. “In the meantime, correctional staff and inmates are reporting health problems and have nowhere to turn.”
“Things have gotten so pathetic at the Office of Special Counsel that they could only find one case in the whole year where the whistleblower did not have an utterly miserable experience,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The accountability mechanisms in the federal government, while never strong, have now ceased to function altogether.”
Not all of them were resolved successfully, though, if that could even be called a success.
After Art Davies blew the whistle on inappropriate contracting practices in an Army Corps of Engineers project, resulting in an investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General and ultimately the wrongdoers being fired, the OSC has decided not to do anything about him being retaliated against.
“What they’ve told us is that they’ve made a preliminary decision not to pursue Mr. Davies’ case before the Merit System Protection Board, i.e. not supporting his claim despite the finding of the DOD IG,” said his attorney, Avi Kumin.
And if that weren’t enough, last week the office’s internal newsletter (PDF) offered the following business casual dress advice for women: “Before choosing a skirt to wear, sit down in it facing a mirror.”
“You couldn’t help but laugh when you saw it. But then people took it more seriously and became offended and insulted,” said an office investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “This came through our boss. How is that going to make us feel?”
Office spokesman Loren Smith said his boss, Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, had “skimmed” the newsletter and “was under the impression it was for a discussion of what the guidelines might be.” — Washington Post
Apparently some employees wanted to come to work wearing “jeans with holes, flip flops and the like,” Smith said.
Quite the professional environment there at the Office of Special Counsel, where they have time to worry about what to wear, but not enough to investigate whistleblower complaints of retaliation.