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Head of Worker Protection Office Is Accused of Retaliatory Transfers

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A13

Three government watchdog groups said yesterday that the official in charge of protecting federal workers from harassment by their bosses has undertaken a politically motivated reorganization of his agency.

Scott J. Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel, told 12 career employees last week that they would be involuntarily transferred to new assignments in Dallas; Oakland, Calif.; and a soon-to-open field office in Detroit, the nonprofit groups said in a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The groups -- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Project on Government Oversight and the Government Accountability Project -- asked Congress to investigate the matter.

Cathy Deeds, an OSC spokeswoman, said the reorganization is the product of careful study and will help improve the performance of an independent agency that has accumulated significant case backlogs.

The agency's job is to safeguard the merit system, prevent the intrusion of partisan politics into the federal workplace and protect federal employees from prohibited personnel practices, notably retaliation for whistle-blowing. Bloch, a lawyer who worked on President Bush's initiative to help religious charities and service groups receive more government money, began his five-year term as special counsel last January.

"The restructuring is specifically designed to better meet OSC's mission," Deeds said. ". . . And this strategic realignment of OSC will prevent the backlogs that have historically plagued the agency prior to Mr. Bloch taking office."

The groups contend, however, that Bloch's goal is to punish senior employees who have questioned his management practices and policy decisions. The affected employees must report to their new offices in 60 days, and Bloch has told them they will be fired if they do not indicate their willingness to do so within 10 days, an "absurdly short" time frame, the groups' letter said.

The groups say that Bloch did not ask for volunteers and that the affected employees have been told they cannot switch with other workers who might be interested in making a move. The groups also say at least seven vacancies exist at the Washington office and that it would be cheaper and more efficient to move those slots to the field offices and fill them there, rather than paying to move existing employees or offering them severance packages.

"The way that the 'reorganization' is being implemented leads to the inescapable conclusion that existing career staff are being purged. . . . Virtually all of the employees affected are individuals who either work under [Bloch], or have themselves dared to engage in even mild private discussions with Mr. Bloch of the advisability of management and policy decisions he has made over the last twelve months," the groups' letter said.

The groups say Bloch has hired many new employees non-competitively. "Not a single one of Mr. Bloch's personal picks, so selected, is being forced to move," the letter said.

The Washington Post telephoned the office of a private lawyer who was said to be meeting with several of the affected employees yesterday, but the call was not returned.

Deeds, the OSC spokeswoman, called the groups' accusations "outrageous and inaccurate," adding that there was nothing improper about Bloch's personnel decisions.

"This is government, and we have management-directed reassignment" of employees, she said. "This happens a lot. It's not targeting anybody or any punitive nature or anything like that."

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