In 1975, if you were betting on the 12 persons to be named White House fellows, you might sensibly have put some money on Jane Doe.
She was one of 32 finalists. She had survived a weekend of intensive interviews. And she had made a strongly favorable impression on several members of the selection panel.
Had you picked Doe -- her true name has not been revealed -- you would have been throwing your money away. She didn't stand a chance. The reason: two persons had alleged to the Civil Service Commission that she not only had committed petty theft while a student at Smith College, but also was a kleptomaniac.
Neither accuser has been identified. One appears to have had personal knowledge of Doe's purported obsessive impulse to steal. The other relied solely on hearsay. By contrast, her integrity was held above reproach by most of the more than 30 other people interviewed by CSC investigators.
Doe knew nothing of the allegations, because the CSC did not tell her about them. Instead, it sent her file to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. The commissioner who was Doe's primary supporter withdrew her support after reading the file, leading to Doe's rejection.
Now, thanks to a chance discovery of the explanation for Doe's rejection, the government has made an open admission of wrongdoing. Doe's counsel, Jack D. Novik of the American Civil Liberties Union, termed the admission "unprecedented."
In addition, the government has written an unequivocal letter of apology to Doe and has paid her $25,000 in damages under the Privacy Act. The payment is the first of its kind under the 1974 law, to Novik's knowledge.
"I deeply regret that the Office of Personnel Management [successor to the CSC] improperly included unsubstantiated derogatory information in your investigative file," OPM general counsel Margery Waxman wrote in the letter to Doe, a 32-year-old Manhattan television producer and free-lance writer.
Waxman, who was not involved in the case, added that the allegations of theft and kleptomania had not been supported adequately and that Doe had proven them groundless.
Moreover, Waxman wrote, the allegations never should have appeared in the file or have been provided to the presidential commission. "It is clear to me that the government's actions in this case were improper," Waxman concluded. "I sincerely apologize . . ."
That isn't all.
In a settlement reached after U.S. District Court Judge Charles H. Tenney of New York City ruled that the CSC had violated Doe's constitutional rights, the OPM agreed that Doe would be designated anew as a finalist in the competition for a White House fellowship. Since then, Doe has been chosen and will be at the White House starting in September.
Finally, the government agreed to issue new regulations intended to prevent a recurrence of such an episode in the fellowship program, and the OPM is examining its investigative procedures and the potential for personal liability of government officials who violate the constitutional rights of employes and applicants.
Doe's accidental discovery of the allegations against her came about because all 12 White House fellows in the 1975-76 program were white males, although the 32 finalists included women and minorities.
Another woman sued, alleging sex discrimination. As a result, the government had to spell out the reasons for rejecting each female finalist. Although the court records were sealed, Doe learned from a lawyer the allegations against her.
Initially, Doe, armed with statements from people who said the allegations were false, asked the CSC merely to remove the derogatory material from her file. The CSC refused and was upheld on administrative appeal. Then, in January 1978, the ACLU filed its successful lawsuit.