Send them to … Detroit!

Mar 23, 2005 at 12:00 am

It’s a classic case of who watches the watchman. The Office of the Special Counsel, the federal agency that’s supposed to stop other federal agencies from engaging in shady dealings, is itself being accused of doing bad things.

The OSC, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is an independent executive and prosecutorial agency with jurisdiction over all the other federal agencies. Among the OSC’s duties are protecting whistleblowers and enforcing the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activities of federal employees.

But what happens when the OSC itself is accused of wrongdoing? That’s the dilemma being faced by a dozen of the agency’s employees who recently received unwanted transfers to field offices in Dallas, Oakland, Calif., and good ol’ Detroit — a place apparently considered so God-forsaken that being transferred here is a form of punishment. Some quit rather than move, others were fired after refusing to take the new assignment.

Representatives of the OSC say the reassignments were part of a planned reorganization of the department

Jeff Ruch, director of nonprofit federal watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says the staffers were essentially forced out. Some were suspected of having leaked info to the media. Others were openly gay.

The overarching theme, Ruch says, is that these people didn’t fit the mold demanded by Office of the Special Counsel’s Stephen Bloch, a Bush appointee who previously worked in the Justice Department’s office of faith-based initiatives.

Let’s see if we can think of what that mold would be. Right-winger? Check. Devout Christian? Check. Intolerant of other viewpoints and orientations? Check.

Spokeswoman Cathy Deeds says that with OSC headquarters in D.C. and field offices only in Dallas and Oakland, it makes sense geographically to open an office in Detroit. The staffers, Deeds says, were given “management directed reassignments,” with 60 days to decide whether or not to take the transfers.

Deeds wouldn’t come out and say that staffers who wouldn’t take the transfers were fired, preferring to say that they wouldn’t have jobs if they didn’t ship out: “Their jobs in D.C. didn’t exist anymore.”

Rashida Adams, of D.C.-based law firm Bernabei and Katz, is one of the attorneys representing the 12 former feds.

Transferring people for legitimate reasons is entirely legal, Adams says.

“What is illegal is that the employees have been targeted for impermissible reasons.”

That’s the case here, she contends.

Adams notes that other workers in the OSC were interested in transferring to one of the field offices, but were passed by for employees who had rubbed Bloch the wrong way.

The OSC drew media attention in January 2004 when guidelines prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were removed from the office’s guidelines. That was the same month, incidentally, that Bloch took over the office.

The special counsel is a presidential appointee, confirmed by Congress, and can only be removed by the president for cause.

To get a fair hearing of their grievances, the employees requested that the matter be transferred to the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency. That request has been granted.

Other than that, Adams says, she hasn’t gotten much cooperation. She says her team had asked that the transfers and firings be postponed until the complaint could be investigated and that the guidelines regarding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation be reinstated. So far, she says, no dice.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]