The Justice Department, normally accustomed to telling evil-doers to reach for the sky, has been collared by a tiny federal agency for the way it has handled the cases of some employes who happen to be deputy U.S. marshals.
In a first-of-its-kind situation, the new Merit Systems Protection Board has directed the giant Justice Department not to reassign four employes. They have been giving the U.S. Marshals Service fits since blowing the whistle on alleged racial discrimination and illegal job actions.
The case is all the more interesting since it is taking place in Atlanta, Ga., practically in President Carter's back-home backyard.
Acting on the recommendation of the Office of Special Counsel, the Board (MSPB) issued a "petition for stay of personnel action" against the U.S. Marshals Service. It covers four deputies who alleged their pending transfers are reprisals for their complaints about alleged mistreatment of black coworkers, and improper conduct by their superiors. All four men are white.
Justice officials after investigating the marshals' complaints, approved the transfers to four separate cities -- Miami, Houston, San Antonio and Beaumont, Tex. The transfers had been proposed by the boss the marshals had complained against. All the men alleged through their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, that they were being harassed, given bad assignments and finally transfers for sticking up for black colleagues who had complained of alleged discrimination.
The special counsel, who has authority to investigate allegations of reprisals against government workers who complain about improper or illegal action, said the transfers appeared to be punitive, and an attempt to break up the group.
The four white deputy marshals, plus three black deputy marshals not affected by the transfer plans, had been feuding with their boss. He is the head of the U.S. Marshals Service for northern Georgia. Each had accused higher ups of being antiblack, and of abusing federal personnel rules.
One deputy, Robert J. Frazier, claimed he had been forced to resign as his office's equal employment counsellor for coming to the aide of non-white colleagues in the Georgia office.
The MSPB and the Office of Special Counsel were created by the President's civil service reform act. The Counsel investigates allegations of official arm-twisting and the board, if it agrees, can order agencies to stop doing whatever they are allegedly doing to retaliate against whistle-blowers.
In documents filed with Justice, the board said the deputies troubles began in mid-1978 when they wrote Congress. They complained of alleged discrimination, violation of personnel regulations and labor law. These included alleged "dirty" or unsafe assignments for some employes. They also charged that some officials had been partying or playing when they were supposed to be taking official target practice at the Cobb County pistol range.
After at least two investigations by Washington-based personnel of the U.S. Marshals Service, the department okayed the proposed transfer of four of the men. At that time they, and the AFGE, went to the Office of the Special Counsel.
The OSC made its own study, and concluded there was "reasonable grounds to believe" that the transfers were reprisals for rocking the boat in public.
A spokesman for the Justice Department's Marshals Service said Justice "intends to support it (the transfer proposal) and make submissions with an intent to establish that the allegations" made by the four deputy marshals 'are not substantiated." He said the Department is "hopeful to be able to persuade the board" to stop its action blocking the transfers.