OSC’s Bloch plays defense

Office of Special Counsel leader answers criticism about his management style

Office of Special Counsel Web site

The Office of Special Counsel’s mission is to protect federal workers from prohibited workforce practices, such as discrimination and retaliation against whistle-blowing. Special Counsel Stephen Bloch said his office is doing a great job. But some lawmakers and unhappy employees in that office think otherwise. 

“It is my pleasure to report that our agency is functioning better than at any other time in its history,” Bloch told the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia Workforce Subcommittee July 12. Since he took office in January 2004, when he began a five-year term as a Bush administration appointee, the office has eliminated an 18-month backlog of cases, Bloch said. The office also has been restructured to improve operations and avoid future backlogs.

Bloch’s performance review, however, did not satisfy Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the committee. “Carrying out the agency’s delicate mission requires an unbiased, understated, below-the-radar approach,” Davis said. He described Bloch as embroiled in controversy that has damaged the reputation and credibility of his office.

“He has come under widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for the mismanagement and politicization of his office,” Davis added. “And he is under investigation himself — for exercising the exact form of retaliation OSC is designed to investigate.”

Democrats at the hearing largely defended Bloch against Republicans charges of bias in his report on General Services Administration Administrator Lurita Doan, which alleges that she violated the Hatch Act. But they assailed him on other grounds, primarily those that form the basis of an Office of Personnel Management investigation of Bloch launched in 2005.

OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland is probing allegations that Bloch created a hostile work environment by retaliating against career OSC staff members, resulting in the reassignment of 12 employees for whistle-blowing. The IG is also looking into a possible violation of laws that guarantee federal employees the right to communicate with Congress. The IG also wants to determine whether Bloch refused to enforce statutory prohibitions against sexual-orientation bias in the federal workplace.

Six former OSC employees raised the charges anonymously under the Whistleblower Protection Act, along with several outside groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which describes itself as a nonprofit public interest group.

According to GAP, the number of favorable actions — those that directly benefit the complaining employee — has dropped 60 percent since Bloch became leader of the agency in 2004.

At the July 12 hearing, Bloch characterized the claims against him as “reckless, false and slanderous” and said he is anxious for OPM’s investigation to end. “It’s unfair to the staff, it’s unfair to me, and it’s unfair to the government to have these political attacks hanging over the agency.”

The subcommittee heard testimony from Natresha Dawson, a former OSC paralegal specialist, who has filed complaints against the office under the Whistleblower Act and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She said she was terminated last year after blowing the whistle internally on the office’s neglect of whistle-blowers. “The response was swift, ugly retaliation,” she added.

While working in the OSC’s Customer Service Unit, Dawson found that intakes, or whistle-blowing calls from alleged victims, were dismissed arbitrarily, “even though their alleged facts appeared to correspond directly to the elements of prohibited workforce practices summarized on the OSC Web site.” She added that OSC supervisors and other staff members regularly referred to whistle-blowers as crazy.

Dawson said that when her supervisor was unresponsive to her complaints, she sent an e-mail message to Bloch about the situation, appealing to him “to provide leadership against threats to the merit system from within OSC.” Bloch never responded, but she was later threatened with termination if she communicated again with Bloch, Dawson told the subcommittee.

Questioned about the case by subcommittee chairman Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Bloch said he had no personal contact with Dawson. “I understand it’s a routine personnel matter,” he said. “I really don’t know a lot about it. I don’t know what that person’s situation really is.”

A Washington attorney who specializes in federal workforce law said it was unusual for a special counsel to be under fire from so many sides. “On the one hand, the office’s independence is designed to be able to withstand those kinds complaints,” the attorney said. “On the other hand, it seems like everyone’s critical. Other than Mr. Bloch, there doesn’t seem to anybody looking out for him.”
A small office with potentially big cloutThe Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency whose authority comes from three statutes: the Civil Service Reform Act, Whistleblower Protection Act and Hatch Act. It has more than 100 employees.

OSC’s Disclosure Unit receives and evaluates whistle-blowing disclosures from current and former federal employees and applicants for federal employment. Such disclosures are distinct from complaints of retaliation for whistle-blowing, which OSC said are reviewed by the office’s Complaints Examining Unit as a prohibited personnel practice.

Under federal law, confidentially is guaranteed to whistle-blowers, whose identity cannot be revealed without their consent. The special counsel can order an agency leader to investigate and report on the disclosure. After an investigation, the special counsel must send a report on the inquiry, with the whistle-blower’s comments, to the president and congressional oversight committees.

— Richard W. Walker?

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