By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007
A trouble-plagued whistle-blower investigation at the Office of Special Counsel -- whose duties include shielding federal whistle-blowers -- hit another snag this week when employees accused the special counsel of intimidation in the probe.
The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been investigating allegations by current and former OSC employees that Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch retaliated against underlings who disagreed with his policies -- by, among other means, transferring them out of state -- and tossed out legitimate whistle-blower cases to reduce the office backlog. Bloch denies the accusations, saying that under his leadership the agency has grown more efficient and receptive to whistle-blowers.
The probe is the most serious of many problems at the agency since Bloch, a Kansas lawyer who served at the Justice Department's Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, was appointed by President Bush three years ago. Since he took the helm in 2004, staffers at the OSC, a small agency of about 100 lawyers and investigators, have accused him of a range of offenses, from having an anti-gay bias to criticizing employees for wearing short skirts and tight pants to work.
The 16-month investigation has been beset by delays, accusations and counter-accusations. The latest problem began two weeks ago, when Bloch's deputy sent staffers a memo asking them to inform OSC higher-ups when investigators contact them. Further, the memo read, employees should meet with investigators in the office, in a special conference room. Some employees cried foul, saying the recommendations made them afraid to be interviewed in the probe.
This week, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and Human Rights Campaign and a lawyer for the OSC employees protested in a letter to legislators and to Clay Johnson III, the Office of Management and Budget deputy who ordered the OSC probe.
The OSC's memo, the group said, "was only the latest in a series of actions by Bloch to obstruct" the investigation. "Other actions have included suggestions that all witnesses interviewed . . . provide Bloch with affidavits describing what they had been asked and how they responded."
Bloch's office responded with a statement: "Due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation, OSC cannot comment on it other than to say we look forward to the speedy resolution. Special Counsel Bloch has been and continues to be recused from any decision-making in this investigation. The Office of Special Counsel has fully cooperated in the investigation, and any information to the contrary is reckless speculation."
But the same day the organizations went to the OMB and Congress, Bloch's new deputy, Jim Byrne, issued another employee memo -- not inspired by the complaint, he said.
"All OSC Employees: This e-mail communicates new procedures that will be used . . . in conducting the remainder of its investigative work in our agency. . . . The [investigators] will schedule interviews by directly contacting the employee with whom they wish to speak. The date, time, and place of the interviews will be arranged between the OIG and the employee. There is no longer a requirement to use OSC facilities for the interview. . . ." he wrote.
"All employees who are contacted by the OIG should cooperate fully with the investigators and provide information and testimony unless disclosure of the information is prohibited by law, regulation, or policy. All employees are permitted to be represented by personal counsel during their interview. . . .
"And, you are also welcome to directly contact me with any questions that you may have. We have nothing to hide."