Right to Choose

Daniel Pulliam

As part of a reorganization, Scott J. Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel, sent a memo to 12 career workers last week telling them they had to transfer to regional offices in 60 days or face the loss of their jobs.

An employee that is being asked to move told Government Executive recently that the move is uprooting many lives, and that they are disappointed Bloch did not look for employees who would voluntarily transfer. "Two colleagues are facing the prospect of ... a split marriage," said the worker, who spoke anonymously, fearing retaliation from agency officials. "Another person was seeking to become engaged, and now that money will be set aside for a rainy day."

While the OSC employee would not speculate on why Bloch is relocating the employees, three government watchdog groups--the Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Office and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility--said the move is part of a "crude purge attempt" and "just the latest stage in Scott Bloch's reign of terror." The watchdog groups have long been critical of Bloch's leadership at OSC, the agency responsible with protecting federal workers' rights.

In a letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the watchdog groups called for oversight hearings and an independent investigation of Bloch's "illegal personnel practices and the culture of fear he has created at OSC."

Collins spokeswoman Elissa Davidson said that the committee is looking into the situation and is interested in learning more about how the reorganization will help OSC reduce its case backlog and how they are addressing concerns raised by employees.

OSC spokeswomen Cathy Deeds said employees were not targeted or threatened. She said the agency's restructuring is part of a plan to run the agency more efficiently.

Seven of the workers were told to move to a new field office in Detroit, four to OSC's Dallas field office and one to the Oakland, Calif., field office. Deeds said the realignment is strategic and will help prevent future case backlogs. Until recently, OSC was burdened by hundreds of cases involving whistleblower claims of fraud, waste and mismanagement that had not made it through the initial screening process.

"The agency restructuring announced by the special counsel last week will help us better meet our core mission to protect whistleblowers and prevent prohibited personnel practices, and make our agency more effective and efficient," Deeds said. "We have confidence in our employees, and no one was threatened in any way in connection with this new opportunity."

Anthony Vergnetti, a private lawyer representing some of the employees being asked to move, said he is not prepared to identify any specific merit system violations, and no lawsuit has been filed. He said that since OSC investigates merit system abuses, the situation needs congressional oversight.

Union leaders directed criticism at Bloch's reorganization efforts, stating that the agency charged with guarding federal worker rights should not be acting in a manner that abuses those rights. "Forced involuntary transfers - regardless of the name given to the action - are an improper use of management authority by the special counsel," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley.

Spy Games

Two former Communist bloc diplomats-turned-spies have taken the Central Intelligence Agency to the Supreme Court for refusing to provide them with financial assistance they say they were guaranteed when they agreed to conduct espionage for the United States during the Cold War.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in the case that could decide whether the court system has jurisdiction over secret espionage contracts.

John and Jane Doe, the names used by the couple in the lawsuit, settled in the United States after the CIA promised them lifetime financial assistance and the opportunity to defect in exchange for espionage, according to court records.

After an unknown period of time, the CIA moved the Does to the United States and gave them new identities and false backgrounds. John Doe was able to find employment, and eventually the CIA stopped providing the couple with financial assistance.

Several years later, John Doe lost his job in a corporate merger and has been unable to find a job since. According to the complaint, the Does will have to return to their home country where they risk detection and punishment for their espionage work, the lawsuit contends.

After the CIA told the Does' attorney that they have done enough to adequately compensate them for their spying, the couple sued in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, alleging due process violations.

The CIA believes that a Civil War-era case, Totten v. United States removes the court's jurisdiction to decide cases based on alleged secret contracts with the government.

William H. Webster, former CIA director from 1978 to 1987, said that there are many obvious reasons for the CIA to honor its agreements.

"I have seen cases in my time where the government bent over backwards to help people that gave service to this country," Webster said. "It serves the agency and the public interest best if the agency did not develop a reputation for not honoring its agreements."

The District Court agreed and rejected the CIA's argument, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it. A ruling from the Supreme Court is expected this summer.

John Doe v. CIA, U.S. Supreme Court, Doc. #03-1395, Jan. 11, 2005.