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GAO: Watchdog agency workers need own complaint process

Congress should establish independent means for Office of Special Counsel employees to lodge allegations of improprieties by top agency officials, report argues.

Employees at the agency responsible for safeguarding the federal merit system by investigating and prosecuting prohibited personnel practices and whistleblower reprisals should have an independent means for filing their own grievances, a new report recommends.

Citing the potential for conflicts of interest when an employee at the independent Office of Special Counsel files a prohibited personnel practice allegation against one of the agency's top two officials, the Government Accountability Office report stated that Congress should consider granting OSC employees an alternative means for addressing their concerns.

The 34-page report (GAO-06-16) said OSC policies do not provide specific options to its employees for filing complaints. Two other agencies with redress responsibilities -- the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- have taken steps to address potential conflicts of interest if one of their employees has a complaint.

For OSC employees, the option of going through the agency itself "becomes unworkable when an OSC employee raises such an allegation of prohibited personnel practice against the two top officials of OSC -- the special counsel or the deputy special counsel," the report states.

OSC spokeswoman Cathy Deeds said in a statement that the agency is preparing a recommendation on this matter for GAO and will be exploring the issue further.

The report was written at the request of six House Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

The agency and its chief, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, have come under fire from members of Congress and a coalition of nonprofit Washington-based whistleblower protection groups. Allegations include the claim that Bloch retaliated against a group of his employees who complained about office policies.

The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general started an investigation into the allegations after a complaint originally filed with OSC was forwarded to the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency.

GAO auditors said most current and former OSC employees they spoke to said that the option of an external investigation is needed and that the results of such an investigation should be presented to the president, who would have the authority to take corrective action.

OSC would need congressional approval to create an avenue for its employees to seek an external investigation, according to the report. The MSPB appeals process, which is set in law, also would have to be altered legislatively to create broader appeal rights for OSC employees.

The report also found that OSC violated contracting rules when it issued a sole-source contract to the consulting firm Military Professional Resources Inc.

OSC, which does not have its own contracting office, relied on the Treasury Department's Administrative Resource Center, part of the Bureau of Public Debt, for procurement services. ARC provides procurement and other administration assistance to federal agencies on a fee-for-service basis.

On OSC's behalf, ARC issued a $140,000 sole-source task order to the consulting firm without properly documenting why such a contract was needed and why the price was reasonable, according to the report. If federal agencies bypass competition when issuing a contract, they are required by acquisition law to justify their decision.

The report said that because ARC was serving as OSC's contracting arm, it was ARC's responsibility to make sure contacting laws were followed. The report also found that OSC employees who were not qualified as contracting officers were involved in contracting decisions.

Interagency contracting, where one agency relies on contracts set up by another agency, was added to GAO's high risk list in January.

"While interagency contracting can offer the benefits of improved efficiency and timeliness, this approach needs to be effectively managed," the report stated.

GAO recommended that ARC's division of procurement more carefully review documents requesting contracting assistance. In response, ARC said the division "will become even more vigilant in reviewing such documents and ensuring that only authorized personnel are participating in the administration of contracts."

OSC officials generally agreed with the recommendations in the report, but said the tone of the part that described sole-source contracts did not reflect the complexity of the procurement situation.

The award was consistent with regulations and MPRI was the cheapest bidder, OSC said. "It is most likely that several hundred thousand dollars of taxpayer money was saved by using MPRI," an OSC spokeswoman said. She also said OSC designated an additional employee to receive extra contracting training.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the report "confirms our perception that this special counsel is afflicted by cronyism run rampant."