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Federal Times: Special Counsel Should Resign or be Removed

September 17, 2007
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By GAP Legal Director Tom Devine and GAP Legislative Assistant Adam Miles.

July’s hearing on the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) leads us to this conclusion: Special Counsel Scott Bloch is hopelessly over his head in his job to defend the federal civil service merit system. To restore legitimacy for the office, he must resign or be removed by the president for cause.

Bloch’s mission is to shield federal employees from retaliation and the civil service from political interference. But his mismanagement casts a cloud over OSC career staff members, who remain effective when allowed to do their jobs.

Productivity has plummeted, including a drop in help for whistleblowers. According to OSC’s own reports, the number of “favorable actions” OSC obtained for whistleblowers, its primary constituency, fell from 98 in fiscal 2002 — the last full year of the previous special counsel — to 40 in fiscal 2006. The figure of 40 is an inflated one considering that OSC broadened its definition of favorable actions in 2005.

The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal work force met July 12 on the agency’s reauthorization. But the hearing degenerated when Bloch was confronted with charges of authorizing the leak of a draft OSC report to the media.

Special Counsel Bloch actively defends the merit system only when it serves his own political self-interest. Indeed, shortly after the new Democratic Congress took over, Bloch opened a broad-based investigation of efforts by White House officials, including Karl Rove, to politicize the civil service. This was announced just as reports surfaced that a White House investigation of OSC employees’ allegations of Bloch’s own illegal gag orders and of whistleblower retaliation against OSC staff is nearing a conclusion.

Meanwhile, federal employees have been left out in the cold. Our analysis of OSC’s annual reports indicates that the percentage of complainants helped by OSC, 2.49 percent, is the lowest since the Whistleblower Protection Act’s 1989 passage.

At a Senate reauthorization hearing in March, Bloch blamed the whistleblowers. The “quality” of complaints has dropped, he said. He assured Congress he wants to find “the good” in whistleblower complaints so badly that he engages in “Where’s Waldo?” game strategies with his staff.There is an easier way to help employees than playing games: Listen and allow staff members to make an honest effort.

Government employees do not view OSC as a reliable outlet for their concerns, and with good reason.

OSC whistleblower Natresha Dawson is a poster child for what has gone wrong. After May 2005 Senate hearings, Bloch responded to senators’ criticisms that his agency was no longer communicating with those who seek OSC help by creating a Customer Service Unit (CSU). Dawson, who staffed the new unit, was bewildered when she was gagged from telling any of the staff who work on cases about her discussions with complainants. She was serving only as an irrelevant diversion. When she appealed to Bloch, she was gagged from communicating again with him under threat of termination. After eight months, the CSU was dismantled and Dawson was terminated. She has filed a Whistleblower Protection Act complaint.

Federal employees can hardly count on Bloch to defend them from the same harassment tactics he perfects against his own staff.

OSC has become an object of contempt among the constituencies it supposedly serves. But there is a real need for a credible special counsel. Relevant congressional committees are working diligently to overhaul the legal rules governing OSC’s work. This is an important step. Unfortunately, it is not possible to legislate commitment, competence or leadership.

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