Out of Time

By Daniel Pulliam

Seven Office of Special Counsel workers ordered to relocate to regional offices have decided to leave the agency rather than accept a transfer.

According to Anthony Vergnetti, the lawyer representing eight of 12 workers given directed reassignments, Wednesday was the deadline for the employees to decide whether they wanted to relocate or be fired. The original deadline was Jan. 16.

"Our employees had to make a decision, and hopefully if Congress does do something, the employees will be able to undo whatever their decision is," Vergnetti said. "They're faced with a tough situation. Not everybody can say, 'OK, I'll leave and try to find another job somewhere else.' "

A Jan. 26 letter from Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Danny Davis, D-Ill., urged OSC to delay requiring the workers to make a decision about transferring until congressional committees get the chance to review the situation.

Vergnetti said he requested another extension based on the letter, but OSC said it would interfere with their decision to move on.

OSC has refused to answer specific questions regarding the matter, and agency spokeswoman Cathy Deeds wrote in an e-mail that "these are internal personnel matters and we have no comment."

In the letter, the lawmakers question why OSC decided to open a Detroit office when the nearest Merit Systems Protection Board office - the agency before which OSC litigates - is in Chicago. OSC has stated that a study concluded that they needed an office in Detroit, but that report has not been made public and an OSC employee said career agency employees were not consulted and have not seen the report.

The employee, who spoke to Government Executive on condition of anonymity, said that only one of the 12 workers is pleased about the transfer because he is getting a promotion by moving to the Dallas field office.

The worker said opening a Detroit office makes little sense because the agency has closed three cases in Detroit in the last year.

"The reason I accepted is that I didn't want a formal removal on my federal record," the worker said. "We had so little notice that I wanted to buy some time to allow for job searching."

The worker said four employees have until March 20 to report to their new offices in Dallas, San Francisco and Detroit. A Senior Executive Service worker will have additional time to report to the OSC office in San Francisco.

Twice Hatched

Two federal workers could lose their jobs for sending partisan e-mails while at work a week before the 2004 presidential election.

The Office of Special Counsel filed Merit Systems Protection Board complaints Jan. 14 against Michael Davis and Leslye Sims, employees in the Social Security Administration's regional office in Kansas City, Mo., for violating the 1939 Hatch Act, a law limiting political activity in the federal workplace.

Davis' message, which he sent to 27 of his SSA co-workers while on duty, featured a photo of President Bush in front of an American flag with the statement, "I vote the Bible." The message included statements supporting Bush and a negative statement about Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. The e-mail urged readers to "pass along the 'I vote the Bible' button."

Sims' message stated, "Why I am supporting John Kerry for president?" and included a letter that appeared to have been written by John Eisenhower, the son of President Eisenhower. Eisenhower wrote that people should support Kerry and not the Republican Party.

OSC spokeswomen Cathy Deeds said the presumptive punishment is removal, but MSPB can decide what disciplinary action is warranted. The minimum punishment is a 30-day suspension without pay.

Deeds said the complaints are independent of each other and that it was a coincidence that the employees worked in the same building. In August, OSC filed two similar complaints against federal workers for sending e-mail messages that attempted to sway co-workers' votes. Those cases have not been decided.

Prior to the election, OSC issued a notice reminding workers of the laws against sending politically charged e-mails.

Deeds said political e-mail relating to Hatch Act violations became an issue in 2000. "In the federal workplace, a lot of e-mails flew around, and people weren't aware that it could be a problem."

While other instances of prohibited e-mail have occurred, OSC's Hatch Act division analyzes which cases they are able to prosecute and OSC Special Counsel Scott Bloch decides whether to go forward, Deeds said. Most of the e-mail violations have been by state and local workers.

"In an election year, they should know, or they should have known, that they're covered by the Hatch Act," Deeds said.