OSC: Reports of FDA whistleblower surveillance are ‘extraordinary’

Monitoring employee correspondence with OSC is not a government trend, spokeswoman says.

The Office of Special Counsel responded Thursday to allegations that Food and Drug Administration officials had been monitoring whistleblower communications, with a spokeswoman calling the charges “extraordinary.”

“We don’t typically have agencies intercepting complaints to us,” OSC spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon told Government Executive.

The Washington Post first reported Wednesday that the probe into alleged FDA surveillance of six employees’ email accounts was widening to explore communications made to OSC. All such correspondence between government employees and OSC is protected under federal law.

In a press release Wednesday, OSC announced it was broadening its FDA investigation. In the release, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner deemed any monitoring of OSC communications “unacceptable.” Lawmakers also have opened investigations into the case.

“If we determine after a careful investigation that there was indeed retaliation for whistleblowing against these FDA employees, then we get to the next step in the process,” O’Hanlon said. That next step usually involves a resolution between OSC and the agency to discipline the supervisors who broke the law, but in rare circumstances could also result in bringing the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board, according to O’Hanlon.

O’Hanlon did not have a timeline for the investigation, saying only that it would take “a matter of months.”

Because the FDA case is unusual, O’Hanlon said, OSC is not exploring alternate means of communication with whistleblowers.

“We don’t believe we have a trend here. We believe we have an extraordinary case, and we’re not changing the way we do business,” O’Hanlon said.