An independent federal agency tasked with protecting federal employees against retaliation and other civil service violations warned the incoming Trump administration not to place a chilling effect on government workers attempting to do their jobs.
The Office of Special Counsel issued the warning in a letter to Democratic senators, obtained by Government Executive, who asked OSC to examine whether President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team may have violated existing statute with some of its probes at federal agencies. Trump’s team came under fire when it sent a questionnaire to the Energy Department asking for the names of specific employees who worked on or attended conferences related to certain issues.
OSC noted transition team members are not federal employees and therefore are not subject to retaliation rules that govern government workers. The agency still encouraged any employee who feels he or she has been “subject to an adverse action in violation of merit system principles” to file a claim. It added that standing in the way of civil servants doing their job could be a violation of federal law, specifically the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.
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“Congress instructed agencies to respect the integrity of the scientific process and the employees who engage in that process on behalf of the taxpayers,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote. “Any effort to chill scientific research or discourse is inconsistent with the intent of the WPEA.”
She added the law protects any employee who attempts to blow the whistle on efforts to “‘distort, misrepresent, suppress or otherwise censor any government ‘research, analysis, or technical information.’”
The transition team has disavowed the Energy questionnaire, saying the individual who sent it was not authorized to do so and has been “properly counseled.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who authored the letter to OSC, called that response “opaque” and said it only increased the need for an investigation. For its part, the Energy Department has said it has no plans to comply with the requests from Trump’s team regarding the names of specific individuals. Trump has since named former Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, as his Energy secretary nominee. Perry, during his first campaign for president, said he would eliminate the department altogether.
Despite the disavowal, several reports surfaced this week of Trump’s State Department landing team requesting information on programs related to gender issues. Unlike the Energy questionnaire, the State request did not ask for the names of specific individuals.
“Protecting federal employees against political retaliation is a bedrock principle of our civil service,” Blumenthal said in response to the new report. “Rather than disavowing previous misguided actions that intimidated federal employees, the Trump transition team merely modified its approach towards a new target.”
Lerner said early next year, OSC will reach out to the heads of all agencies to offer training on protections for whistleblower protections and other laws it enforces.