OSC chief defends management of agency

Lawmakers question head of Office of Special Counsel on efforts to transfer employees and cut agency’s backlog of whistleblower complaints.

A panel of senators Tuesday pressed Scott J. Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel, to explain his agency's handling of whistleblower disclosures and his decision to relocate 12 employees from headquarters to field offices.

Bloch defended his decision to reorganize OSC, which investigates allegations of prohibited personnel practices by federal officials. He said he "never intended to hurt anyone" when he directed nearly 10 percent of the agency's personnel to decide whether to relocate from its headquarters in Washington or find employment elsewhere.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management also grilled Bloch on his enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the amount of review whistleblower cases receive and enforcement of the Hatch Act, the law regulating political activity in the federal workplace.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, the subcommittee's chairman, questioned Bloch's urgency in forcing employees to decide whether or not to relocate to the new field office.

In January, Bloch told 12 OSC career workers they had to decide whether to transfer to regional offices -- including a new office in Detroit -- within 10 days or lose their jobs.

As part of the reorganization, seven workers were asked to move Detroit, four to OSC's Dallas field office and one to its Oakland, Calif., office.

"I hope you understand that asking employees to make life-altering decisions in just 10 days may be construed as insensitive," Voinovich said in his opening statement. "Even though OSC followed the letter of the law, I believe employees should have been provided more time to make this decision."

Bloch said OSC's human resources manager informed him that 10 days was all that was required under federal law for relocating employees and said the agency was aware of how difficult the move would be for workers.

Several employees filed a complaint against Bloch in March for initiating the relocation.

While Bloch did not specifically answer a question from Voinovich about how many employees left the agency as a result of the relocation order, he said, "We are very sorry that some of the employees were aggrieved and we really, really hope for the best for them. We were very concerned about [employees who refused to transfer] and we made recommendations to them for other federal employment."

OSC has long been burdened with large backlogs of whistleblower allegations and complaints of prohibited personnel practices. Bloch made resolving this problem a high priority upon his confirmation as head of the agency in January 2004.

Three government watchdog groups -- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Government Accountability Project and the Project on Government Oversight -- have charged that Bloch is dismissing cases without proper review.

Bloch has said that he has successfully reduced the backlog, while at the same time referring more cases for investigation.

At the hearing, Bloch and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., engaged in a heated discussion on the issue of whether OSC would protect gay employees as a class from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Will you protect in your jurisdiction an employee who gets some adverse action taken purely because that person is gay, without any information relative to activity?" Levin asked. "There's no showing of conduct, no allegation of conduct relative to [homosexual] activities, it's just, 'I'm gay.'"

Bloch responded by defining the legal protections granted to federal employees and the authority given to OSC to enforce those laws.

"We do not see sexual orientation as a term for class status anywhere in statute or in the legislative history or case law, in fact, quite contrary to it," Bloch said. "We are limited by our enforcement statutes as Congress gives them … The courts have specifically rejected sexual orientation as a status protection under our statutes."