Some say Bloch should be careful

Federal Workers

May 04, 2007|By Melissa Harris

Scott Bloch, a Republican appointee who leads a small agency responsible for keeping partisan politics out of the bureaucracy, has opened a wide-ranging investigation into Karl Rove's political operation at the White House.

Bloch is investigating a list of allegations, some of which were made by federal employees. They include briefings to top agency executives about Republicans' prospects during last year's mid-term elections, the firing of a U.S. Attorney believed to be soft on White House priorities and the deletion of private e-mails about these topics, which may have been sent on government time and with government resources.

Public interest groups, which normally salivate over such house-cleaning missions, however, want Bloch to recuse himself because he's investigating people who already were investigating him.

Bloch has been accused of ignoring a ban on discrimination in the federal workplace based on sexual orientation and reassigning employees who had blown the whistle within his own agency.

A council of inspector generals, led by Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, assigned responsibility for investigating Bloch to the Office of Personnel Management's Inspector General, Patrick E. McFarland.

"If Scott Bloch wasn't under investigation and done all of these things, we'd say, `Go for it. More power to him,'" said Beth Daley, director of the investigations for the Project on Government Oversight.

While the investigation has surely elevated Bloch's public profile, he has long been a target of gripes from some federal employees and interest groups.

In addition to enforcing the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using government time or resources to win elections, Bloch also is responsible for protecting whistleblowers from retaliation.

If an employee at a federal agency in Maryland, for instance, alleges that a boss is cooking the books and then is reassigned to a post in Kansas, the worker can file a complaint with Bloch's agency.

Attorneys at the Office of Special Counsel investigate and, if they substantiate the claims, turn to the offending agency and demand relief for the worker.

The relief could include promoting the worker, restoring the worker to his or her old job with a raise, or firing the offender.

However, the number of employees finding success through this route has declined since Bloch took the job, according to statistics culled from the Special Counsel's annual reports and compiled by the Project on Government Oversight.

For instance, in 2002, before Bloch's arrival, the agency processed and closed 1,704 reports of agencies engaging in prohibited practices against workers, including retaliation for whistleblowing. That year the Office of Special Counsel won favorable responses from offending agencies - meaning they gave relief to the worker - in 126 cases.

In 2006, the number of processed and closed cases rose to 1,930 but the number of favorable outcomes to workers dipped to 50.

Elaine Kaplan, who served as the Special Counsel from May 1998 to May 2003, said that she can't explain the dip but said that, in general, there is always tension between reducing case backlogs and providing "quality service."

Under Kaplan's leadership, for instance, attorneys could not close cases without speaking with the employee on the phone. This could take days as attorneys left messages with workers who were on vacation or swamped.

However, the conversation ensured that the workers, who weren't getting the outcomes they wanted, felt that they had been heard. Sometimes, attorneys also picked up new information that prompted them to give cases a second look, Kaplan said.

Bloch, however, has eliminated that requirement - among other administrative procedures - to reduce a large case backlog.

"The more quickly you move cases, which is something that he has emphasized quite a bit, the less likely you will be able to identify the real cases where something unlawful has happened and to secure a remedy for someone who has been injured," Kaplan said.

Loren Smith, a spokesman for Bloch, said that the House Government Reform Committee thoroughly investigated allegations in 2005 that the agency was metaphorically "dumping cases in the Anacostia River" and found no such evidence.

Smith pointed to a case where the office restored a whistleblower's job at an Alaskan outpost of the Department of Agriculture and forced out the offending political appointee, who had required his secretary to do work for his other job as a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly, an elected political body.

The Office of Special Counsel also is preparing to defend a decorated Drug Enforcement Agency senior special agent who was reassigned from Oklahoma to New York after anonymously reporting improper interrogation techniques at agency field offices in late 2005.

"We haven't been able to substantiate a lot of cases, and historically that's the way it has been," Smith said. "Most grievance mechanisms for workers settle [favorably] in the single digits of percent."

As for Bloch's investigation into Rove's political operation at the White House, Smith stated that his boss' job is to investigate alleged violations of the Hatch Act.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at or 410-715-2885. Previous columns can be read at

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