Research group files suit to access employee data

FEDERAL WORKERS

December 16, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS

A research group that tracks millions of federal workers' names, job sites and salaries is suing the government after it refused, for the first time, to turn over data on about 900,000 workers, mostly at the Defense Department.

The omitted information covers more than 40 percent of the federal civilian work force and includes employees from 250 agencies, according to the lawsuit.

The Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse keeps data on federal law enforcement, staffing and spending. It is accusing the Office of Personnel Management of violating the Freedom of Information Act in denying its request for complete quarterly labor reports since December 2003.

"We're not interested in invading people's privacy," said David Burnham, TRAC's co-director and a former investigative reporter. "We're in the accountability business."

The data, which is delivered on CD-ROM, is quite detailed, including workers' names, jobs, work sites, salaries, veteran status and General Schedule rating, among other things. It does not include workers' home addresses or telephone numbers.

Academic researchers, the news media and some members of Congress subscribe to the fee-based service to track government waste or areas of weakness. The Sun and its parent, Tribune Co., are not subscribers.

TRAC also offers free analysis on its Web site, trac.syr.edu, of agencies' performance.

For instance, TRAC concludes that among large corporations, the financial services industry has been subject to far less scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service: Fewer than one in five financial services firms were audited during fiscal years 2002 to 2004. During that same period, the IRS audited 100 percent of the nation's 1,219 large agriculture, mining, construction, transportation and manufacturing companies.

Newsday recently used TRAC data to show that during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's first year as a U.S. attorney in New Jersey, prosecutions dropped 30 percent from the year before. And the Houston Chronicle used the data to show a drastic, one-year increase in the prosecution of illegal immigrants crossing the South Texas border.

A spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many of the workers whose information is being withheld, declined to comment because the union is not participating in the litigation. But Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that she supports the lawsuit.

"There is an unquestionable interest in the kind of information that TRAC seeks," Kelley said in a statement. "This type of information, which does not include personal information about employees, is essential to the public in understanding how tax dollars are spent and to NTEU so we can effectively represent federal employees in our bargaining unit."

The Office of Personnel Management declined to comment on the suit, referring questions to the Department of Justice. But according to the lawsuit, OPM sent a letter in November 2004 informing TRAC that it was reviewing its policy on the release of individual employee records. This year, it released some of the records, noting a "major change" in the exclusion of defense records.

According to the industry publication Government Executive, the Defense Department asked OPM to stop releasing the names early in 2004 to protect workers from terrorist attacks. However, TRAC has never received information from the Fort Meade-based National Security Agency, where the exact staffing level is classified.

Quality award

The Social Security Administration was recognized as one of this year's four winners of the President's Quality Award at a ceremony this week in Washington.

The Office of Personnel Management selected SSA from among 47 entries for the government's top management honor. The award lauded the Woodlawn-based agency for its recruitment and retention efforts in advance of an expected loss of 38,000 employees, or more than half of its work force, within a decade, according to the Partnership for Public Service.

Although that predicted retirement wave may or may not come to pass, the agency did hire more than 2,000 people to launch the low-income subsidy portion of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Even before that, using the slogan "Making a Difference in People's Lives and Your Own," the agency hired 4,700 people in 2003, according to a partnership publication.

The writer welcomes comments and questions. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.

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