By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006
A funny thing happened to Leroy Smith on his way to the Office of Special Counsel last week.
Smith, a prison safety manager who blew the whistle on life-threatening conditions in a prison-run factory, was to be honored Thursday afternoon by Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch as the office's Public Servant of the Year.
Bloch flew Smith and his wife in from Arizona, where they now live, put them up in a fancy hotel, invited media and dignitaries -- then, minutes before the event, canceled everything. Instead of an acrylic obelisk and 10 minutes of fame, Smith was left with a free hour and no idea what happened. Special counsel staffers wound up with a roomful of free catered food and almost -- but not for long -- as many questions as Smith.
"I'm very disappointed," Smith said. "And it's kind of fishy."
Bloch said Smith remains the 2006 Public Servant of the Year. Bloch said he canceled the award presentation and news conference after Catherine McMullen, who is chief of the office's whistle-blower disclosure unit and played a key role in investigating Smith's case, suffered a death in her family and had to leave town. "It just didn't feel right," Bloch said, to celebrate Smith without McMullen.
And that, sadly, would have been that. Except for the special counsel staffers who came forward after Bloch pulled the rug out. McMullen's relative, they said, hadn't died suddenly, or even Thursday. Staff members had known for at least a day that McMullen would not attend the event, yet planning for it continued. McMullen could not be reached to comment.
Bloch scuttled Smith's fete, these employees believe, because he got wind of Smith's plan to take his award and head over to a news conference with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Smith and the watchdog group -- which has criticized Bloch in the past -- planned to blast a whistle-blower investigation process that they believe is so lengthy, uncertain and short on employee protections that would-be whistle-blowers might decide it's not worth it.
For Bloch, one staff attorney said, being upstaged by a group of gadflies would put the capper on a bad day that began with a Washington Post story poking fun at the workplace fashion tips published in his office newsletter last month. "Scott does not like negative things said about himself," said the attorney, who would not agree to be named because "I have to keep this job until I can find another one."
Minutes after the cancellation, "We all got an e-mail saying, 'It's cancelled . . . there's food up here if you want it,' " the attorney said. "They had sentries posted in the lobby and up here on the third floor to turn folks away."
Smith reported that his congressman, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), got the cancellation as he was leaving his office for the event.
As for Bloch, "I don't know anything about what [Smith] was doing" after the ceremony, he said. "The most important consideration is the great service that he performed."
Quibbling over lost pomp and circumstance is "getting lost in nonessential things," Bloch said.
Leroy Smith feels differently. His two-year quest to call attention to airborne toxins poisoning workers and inmates in a computer recycling plant at California's Atwater federal penitentiary has endangered his job and has threatened his marriage. He has taken a year off to deal with stress-related health problems. "The award was kind of semi-closure for me," he said.