Washington, DC — The U.S. Special Counsel, the principal protector of federal whistleblower and merit system rights, has abruptly ordered more than 20 percent of his headquarters legal and investigative staff to relocate or be fired. According to a letter of protest filed today by three national whistleblower watchdog groups, those targeted for forced moves are all career employees hired before Bloch became Special Counsel, as part of a purge to stifle dissent and re-staff the agency with handpicked loyalists.
Bloch began the second year of his five-year term by ordering 12 headquarters employees, on penalty of removal, to accept involuntary transfers to Dallas, Oakland and a newly created Detroit field office. Bloch did not ask for volunteers or consult with affected employees beforehand. The employees have been given 10 days to agree to the transfer and 60 days to move. As many of the employees have families in the area it is not known how many will leave public service rather than move.
Three whistleblower protection organizations (the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project on Government Oversight) wrote to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs strongly urging the directed reassignment await an investigation of merit system abuses, retaliation, and other prohibited personnel practices at Office of Special Counsel by the Government Accountability Office. The groups argue that outside review is necessary because there is no independent forum for OSC employees to complain about retaliation and merit system abuses.
"This crude purge attempt is just the latest stage in Scott Bloch's reign of terror at the Special Counsel," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who referred to Bloch's previous issuance of gag orders to staff directing them not to discuss problems with the office. "The only thing this Special Counsel has brought to the merit system is new techniques for circumventing it."
In a January 7th press release, Bloch claims that the Detroit office was created "after extensive discussions with staff and an outside assessment team's review of the Agency structure." In fact, none of the affected staff was notified in advance, let alone party to "discussions," about the move. Moreover, the assessment review did not recommend creation of a new office; in fact the creation of the new office and the transfer of senior executives to field offices is directly contrary to the assessment team's recommendations.
"The irony is overwhelming – how could the federal protector of whistleblowers make a bigger mockery of his agency's mission than this?" asked Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project On Government Oversight, adding that members of Congress have already called for Bloch's removal and employees may now have to rely on Congress to intervene to stop the move. "The pattern of behavior from the Special Counsel certainly indicates he took this job to dismantle the office, rather than its mission."
Since Bloch received no additional funds to rent space and relocate staff, the move will come at the expense of filling existing vacancies. Congress allocated additional funds to hire more staff at OSC to reduce chronic backlogs of whistleblower cases. Bloch claims to have reduced these backlogs but has refused to release figures showing precisely what happened to all those cases in the past year.
"Federal employees can hardly count on Mr. Bloch to defend them from the same harassment tactics he is perfecting against his own staff," contended Tom Devine, Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project, pointing to the fact that OSC staff lawyers feel that they must hire lawyers to defend themselves from Bloch. "This latest episode should provide renewed impetus for Congress to restore credibility to the Whistleblower Protection Act."
In their letter, the groups pointed out that since Bloch became Special Counsel, all OSC positions, including positions previously occupied by career civil servants, have been filled on a non-competitive basis by Bloch's personal picks. None of Mr. Bloch's hand-selected hires have been asked to relocate.