Seven present and former federal employes told a House subcommittee yesterday that government whistle blowers are not adequately protected by the laws and agencies that are supposed to do the job.
Most of the officials said the Merit Systems Protection Board, and its independent Office of Special Counsel, were of little help to federal employes who had been punished for disclosing waste, fraud or abuse.
A survey released last month by the General Accounting Office said that only about 8 percent of the 11,000 complaints received by the special counsel's office since it was created in 1979 were given an in-depth investigation. The survey also said that the special counsel, who argues cases before the merit board, does not view his role as that of an advocate for individual employes, but rather as a protector of the merit system as a whole.
That view was criticized yesterday by the whistle blowers, some of whom said it was a convenient way to avoid pursuing their cases.
George Spanton, a retired Defense Department auditor, told the Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee on civil service that, in 1982, his superiors heard that the special counsel was dropping his case before he got the word. The investigation later resumed, however.
Spanton, whose complaint about harassment by superiors led to the firing of the director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency last week, said the law and the office of special counsel provided inadequate protection for his secretary after she had testified on his behalf.
"She came to me with tears in her eyes," he said, "afraid that she would lose her husband and her house."
But Spanton complimented the investigators and special counsel K. William O'Connor for the eventual outcome of his case. "Frankly, as things have turned out, I cannot fault the office of special counsel or the Merit Systems Protection Board," he said. "I will not bite the hand."
James C. Pope, a former official at the Federal Aviation Administration who said he was put on "inactive status" in 1981 after reporting problems with the FAA's systems for preventing midair collisions, said the special counsel's office should be abolished because it "has sidestepped its responsibilities."
"Dozens upon dozens of whistle blowers have suffered," Pope said, "and how they have suffered -- transfers, firings, harassment, intimidation, downgradings, reprimands, and in every instance, another career and productive life destroyed."
Joseph Gebhardt, a local lawyer who helped draft the 1978 law creating the merit board, called for the repeal of that law. Characterizing the board as "pro-management," he said he understood why the special counsel views his role as protecting the system rather than individuals. "He knows if he says he's defending employes, the merit board will laugh him right out of there," Gebhardt said.
In a telephone interview after the hearing, O'Connor said that Congress has authorized his office "to protect the system, and not act as an ombudsman."
"Their criticism is like criticizing the sun for rising in the east," he said.
He said that a large percentage of the complaints reaching his office are dismissed because "they are specious."
"There are real, personal and psychological traumas that these people have to endure," O'Connor said, "and I'm sympathetic to that. But it's not our job to act like ombudsmen. If Congress wanted us to do that, then they would have passed laws saying that."