Special Counsel Answers Critics

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In a new report, Scott J. Bloch touts his efforts to reduce a chronic backlog at the Office of Special Counsel and attempts to refute criticism that the agency he leads does too little to help civil servants who disclose waste, fraud and abuse.

The 18-page letter to Comptroller General David M. Walker, released Thursday, is a response to a 2004 Government Accountability Office study of backlog problems at OSC, which is supposed to safeguard the federal merit system and protect whistle-blowers. The letter came out less than a week before a Senate subcommittee hearing today on Bloch's controversial tenure.

In his letter, Bloch, who took office in January 2004, claims credit for achieving major reductions in pending cases involving disclosures from federal whistle-blowers and complaints from civil servants about prohibited personnel practices, such as political coercion, nepotism and discrimination based on race.

"Because of the success of this plan, I am happy to report that OSC has reduced the overall case backlog by 82 percent," he wrote.

Bloch's critics, who include government watchdog groups and some current and former OSC employees, say the figures in the letter are misleading.

"[T]he claims that backlogs have been reduced and that enforcement has been increased are based upon a selective and distorted statistical analysis," Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, and Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, wrote in a letter to Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio).

Collins is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Voinovich heads its subcommittee on the civil service, which will conduct today's hearing.

Bloch reported that, in 2004, the OSC office that determines which complaints about prohibited personnel practices to send to the investigative division reduced its backlog of cases from 447 to 119. Critics note the report includes no figures on what happened to the cases after that, raising concerns that the backlog was merely shifted to another part of the agency. A better measure, they say, would be the number of cases that remained unresolved after a statutory 240-day time limit had passed.

Cathy Deeds, an OSC spokeswoman, said the agency could not provide the statistics yesterday. Deeds said the agency has not yet focused on the backlog at the investigation unit stage.

"Staff is working hard on these cases now and we expect similar results by the end of the year," Deeds said in an e-mail.

Bloch also reported that the OSC nearly tripled the number of whistle-blower cases it processed in 2004, reducing a backlog from 690 cases to 108. The number of such cases sent on for investigation increased from 14 in fiscal 2003 to 26 in fiscal 2004, he wrote.

There is a technical dispute about how the OSC counts whistle-blower cases sent to inspectors general for investigation vs. those sent to agency heads. Bloch's critics, and President Bush's budget documents, say the OSC sent 18 cases to agency heads in fiscal 2004. Citing figures from previous OSC annual reports, the Project on Government Oversight, another watchdog group, said the agency referred 11 such cases to agency heads in fiscal 2003 and 19 the previous year. So the agency processed more cases in 2004 but referred on about the same number as before, suggesting to critics that many cases were arbitrarily dismissed.

"I can say he closed the cases, but just how he closed them is the question," said Jane McFarland, who was director of congressional and public affairs under Bloch's predecessor, Elaine Kaplan.

Bloch has denied dismissing cases arbitrarily, and in his letter, he says he changed the standard to make it easier to send whistle-blower cases for investigation.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of a subcommittee on the federal workforce, praised Bloch in a letter last week. "We . . . are satisfied that your hard work -- and smart work -- has resulted in a more responsive Office of Special Counsel," the lawmakers wrote.

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