The U.S. Office of Special Counsel traditionally has been a low-profile corner of the bureaucracy where whistle-blowers and other federal employees can seek protection against unfair treatment. But now, the head of the OSC is himself under investigation, allegedly for engaging in the sorts of prohibited personnel practices his agency is there to guard against.

Ever since Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch took office in January 2004, the agency has been the focus of criticism from career workers, government watchdog groups and gay rights activists.

The Bush appointee has been accused of failing to enforce a long-standing policy against bias in the workplace based on sexual orientation, unnecessarily reorganizing the OSC to try to run off critics, and arbitrarily dismissing some personnel complaints and whistle-blower disclosures in an effort to claim reductions in backlogs.

An anonymous group of OSC employees has accused Bloch of creating a hostile work environment by retaliating against career workers who have been critical of his leadership, hiring employees based on personal connections rather than merit, allowing politics to taint the workplace and giving misleading testimony to Congress. The employee group filed a complaint about Bloch in March and has waited for action.

Bloch has repeatedly denied the allegations and said that he has made the agency more efficient at processing cases and, at the same time, more receptive to whistle-blowers and federal workers who have suffered unfair treatment.

The White House has finally taken notice. Last week, it referred the workers' complaint to Office of Personnel Management inspector general Patrick E. McFarland, who has taken the rare step of opening an investigation into the actions of the head of an agency. An OPM statement announcing the probe promised a "thorough investigation."

The findings cannot come too soon for the workers. The administration's failure to look into the matter until now has been "extremely demoralizing," their attorney, Debra Katz, wrote McFarland Oct. 18.

"It has also left a cloud hanging over that agency, whose effectiveness as a guardian of the merit system depends in large measure upon the public perception of OSC's own integrity and compliance with the law," Katz wrote.

-- Christopher Lee

Merit system guardian Scott J. Bloch is being investigated for alleged merit system abuses.