Office of Special Counsel nominee vows to boost morale

The Office of Special Counsel is one step closer to having its first permanent leader since 2008.

Carolyn Lerner, President Obama's nominee to run the small federal agency charged with investigating allegations of prohibited personnel practices in the civil service, faced scant resistance at her confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and appears to be on her way to confirmation.

In less than an hour of testimony, Lerner laid out an ambitious agenda to reform the reputation of OSC among federal employees and watchdog groups. The office's credibility took a major hit when Scott Bloch ran it from 2004 through 2008 amid allegations that the special counsel himself had retaliated against whistleblowers inside his office.

"Restoring and improving the reputation of the agency is an important goal for me," Lerner said.

Lerner is a founding partner of Heller, Huron, Chertkof, Lerner, Simon & Salzman, a Washington law firm that specializes in civil rights and employment matters for both federal and private sector workers. She serves on the boards of the Center for WorkLife Law, which addresses employees' family responsibilities, and the WAGE Project, which fights discrimination against women in the workplace. She also has worked as a mediator for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

OSC has been without a permanent leader since Bloch left the agency under a cloud in 2008. Last summer, he pleaded guilty to withholding information from federal investigators regarding allegations he used an IT firm to "scrub" files from his work computer. Bloch was scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday afternoon after Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson rejected his request to withdraw his guilty plea. But Robinson delayed the sentencing until Monday, March 14. Bloch's attorneys are expected to file a request for Robinson to reconsider her motion, further delaying the sentencing. He is expected to receive up to a month behind bars.

Lerner plans to meet with OSC employees to discuss morale concerns and would consider restoring the agency's employee advisory committee to air workforce concerns.

One of the top priorities, Lerner said, is to create an environment in which federal whistleblowers are encouraged to come forward with allegations of waste, fraud and misconduct within their agency without fear of retaliation.

"Improving the perception of the Office of Special Counsel is really important so that people feel comfortable coming forward," she said.

The nominee also suggested she would consider recommending a review of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on the job. For example, Lerner noted the Hatch Act statute does not address employees who telecommute from home.

If confirmed, Lerner also plans to beef up the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act office, which currently has only three lawyers. The office protects veterans who want to work in the civil service from potential discrimination based on ongoing obligations to their military service. The agency currently is planning a pilot program to ensure that USERRA complaints are investigated earlier on in the process. Lerner plans to request funding for more lawyers to handle the increased workload.

By virtually any standard, OSC is a small agency, with roughly 100 employees and an $18.5 million budget. But Lerner said OSC deserves more resources "because this agency can save people money," through disclosing waste and misconduct. She plans to ask the Government Accountability Office to conduct an analysis of the money saved through OSC whistleblower disclosures.

Lerner also suggested that a voluntary OSC certification program, in which agencies provide their staff with information on their rights and direction on how to file complaints, should become a mandatory requirement. In addition, she would like to see new federal employees receive information about OSC when they begin their employment.

"I think a lot of employees don't even know that OSC exists," Lerner said.

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