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Federal Diary

Agency's Reorganization Results in Accusations, Employees Leaving

By Stephen Barr
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page B02

A contentious reorganization has snarled operations at the Office of Special Counsel, the independent agency created by Congress to protect workplace rights of federal employees.

As part of the reorganization, 12 employees -- lawyers and investigators -- were ordered in January to take jobs in three field offices. Since the order was given, 10 of those handed transfer orders have left the agency and two other employees have resigned, according to watchdog groups.

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At least five employees refused transfers from Washington to Detroit, where the OSC is opening a new field office. Other employees refused reassignments to the agency's Dallas office.

OSC officials said most of the departing employees took jobs elsewhere in the government. One employee is taking retirement and one is being given severance and is leaving federal service, the officials said.

The staff shakeout has set back the agency's restructuring by at least a month and perhaps three months, Scott J. Bloch, the head of OSC, said yesterday. He said he plans to continue with the reorganization and is sending two employees to open the Detroit office.

Three watchdog groups have claimed that Bloch has run a purge of career civil service employees in order to replace them with friends and loyalists. Under the government's rules for "directed reassignments," employees who object can be let go. The employees who refused reassignments were given notices of removal, the watchdog groups said.

Bloch called the allegation of an employee purge "false" and said, "I've never had a cross word with any of them since I arrived here."

Sharon Lee, an investigator who took retirement rather than a transfer to Detroit, said she was given only 10 days to accept or reject reassignment. Lee, 53, said she decided to stay in Washington, in part because of her daughter's wedding in May.

"I was treated very shabbily," said Lee, a 25-year federal employee. "We had no idea that this was coming. Absolutely none. We were all in shock. . . . It felt like being kicked in the stomach and you had no breath."

The turmoil surrounding the reorganization has drawn attention on Capitol Hill. House members have written Bloch about his plans for OSC. This month, four senators asked Bloch to explain the reorganization, and two of them, Sens. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), plan to team up for an oversight hearing on the agency.

The watchdog groups -- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Project on Government Oversight, and Government Accountability Project -- claim that Bloch is undermining an agency that should be focused on protecting employee rights and investigating reprisals against whistle-blowers who disclose waste, fraud and abuse.

The groups calculate that Bloch has lost about 20 percent of the headquarters legal and investigative staff and about half of the legal staff assigned to investigate retaliation and other prohibited personnel cases at headquarters. Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, called Bloch's tenure "an utter fiasco."

Bloch said "any move you make will have its critics." He said the staff departures mean that OSC "will have to retool" and recruit lawyers and investigators to replace those who left.

He said the agency, which has about 100 employees, has two people going to Detroit to open the field office and plans to increase that staff to 10. Bloch said the Dallas office had already planned to accommodate some retirements and will grow to 10 employees over the next several months. The agency's Oakland office will continue with a staff of 10, he said.

Despite the "slight setback," he said, "we're confident in our plan."

Talk Shows

Kenneth Gold, director of Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute, and Susan Lagon, a senior fellow, will be the guests on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.

David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, will be the guest on the "IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Should You Be Paid According to Job Performance?" will be the topic for discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com.

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