Following years of scandals, the Office of Special Counsel is rebuilding and anxiously awaiting new leadership.
In the past four years, the small, low-profile Office of Special Counsel has received more than its usual share of attention-and not in a good way.
While the workload for many in the office spiked, former Special Counsel Scott Bloch grabbed the spotlight with controversies ranging from retaliating against OSC employees to changing government policy on discrimination against gay employees to an FBI raid on his office and home. With Bloch ousted as of October 2008 and an interim chief heading up the agency, career officials are anxious for new leadership and a new direction.
The Office of Special Counsel is an independent oversight agency charged with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices, particularly whistleblower retaliation. For an agency that must build a reputation for fairness with federal employees and other agencies, scandals like the ones during Bloch's tenure can be especially harmful.
"There was a lot of damage done," says former Deputy Special Counsel Timothy Hannapel, who served under Clinton-appointed Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan. "We'd tried to put the agency on a new path to credibility and . . . it was all just erased and in a drastic way, with the credibility of the agency at rock bottom."
While many observers echo the opinion of Government Accountability Project Legal Director Tom Devine, who called Bloch's tenure an "utter disaster," others insist the agency's career employees have been able to weather the storm. Jim Mitchell, who was OSC spokesman and acting chief of staff under Bloch, says the career employees were remarkably able to separate the controversies from their work. "It really is amazing the work they got done while he was there, he was such a distraction," says Mitchell, who was fired by Bloch just weeks before he was ousted by the White House.
Even acting Special Counsel William E. Reukauf, who shies away from extensive discussion about the Bloch era, admits "there were some strained relations between the career staff and Mr. Bloch, and also strained relationships with some of the agencies." But Reukauf insists any damage-both in terms of agency relations and in-house morale-has been remedied. "We're doing well, morale is high, receipts are up, productivity is high," he says. "But we're looking forward anxiously for a new political leader."
This is Reukauf's third time serving as acting special counsel and both of the previous times he was in the position for approximately six months.
He is quick to note that the six-month mark for this term is fast approaching. While the backgrounds of former special counsels have varied, stakeholders have a long wish list when it comes to character traits for the next OSC head. Reukauf says career OSC employees are looking for an open-minded and talented lawyer with high energy and high integrity. For Hannapel, it's crucial that the next leader is "impartial, in fact and appearance" to navigate competing interests and pressures.
Bloch was unique as a special counsel in that he united the two parties in Congress. Hannapel warns that many special counsels face a conflict between the administration that appointed them but which they must police and congressional leaders hoping to use the agency as a political weapon.
Among all these detractors, the political appointee must, of course, connect with the rank and file, Mitchell says.
The next special counsel "should put together a group of career people and have them review the policies and procedures and practices and make recommendations for changes," Mitchell says. "It's a good way to engage career people, to ask them for advice."
The next chief also should be able to highlight the important role the agency could have in the economic recovery, Hannapel says. While the appointment of a special counsel is not likely high on President Obama's list of must-dos, the administration could be missing out on another avenue to keep its lofty promises of accountability and transparency by leaving the position empty.
A spike in whistleblower disclosures, which OSC vets, is likely given the massive amount of money going out the door and the speed at which it's moving, according to Reukauf. A strong OSC, which encourages whistleblowers to come forward and ensures that agencies protect them when they do, will be an asset to the administration, he says.
Hannapel agrees that OSC's mission is "tremendously important, now more than ever" in that it empowers front-line employees to speak up when they see something wrong. Early detection of fraud, waste or mismanagement will help the stimulus watchdogs in their goal of prevention rather than punishment. "What you've got to do there is go to employees and say come to me quickly, come to me before it happens," he says.
The stimulus won't be the only thing keeping OSC busy. Hatch Act violations have been trending up for years and likely will continue to do so, according to Reukauf. "With the explosion of e-mail and computer communications we've gotten lots and lots of complaints of employees using their PCs to send e-mails that are essentially electioneering materials," he says. OSC has ramped up its efforts to educate federal employees about what is permitted when it comes to campaigning. Still, Reukauf says, more enforcement actions against Hatch Act violators are likely.
Additionally, a provision in the pending 2009 Veterans Employment Rights Realignment Act would allow service members and veterans filing workforce discrimination complaints under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act to go directly to OSC instead of through the Labor or Veterans Affairs departments.
Passage of that provision would include a budget increase for the agency. Even without it, Reukauf says, OSC will be getting "more than a modest increase" in the 2010 budget. But, as he points out, the size and direction of the agency might just be speculation until a long-term political leader is in place.