Bush legal official has unused Detroit office lease; Senate irked
Soon after his 2004 appointment, in one of his first official acts, Bloch removed the words "sexual orientation" from the OSC’s Web site, training materials and official documents as a category protected from discrimination in the federal workforce.
Bloch took this action despite interpretations of U.S. law under Democrat and Republican presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan stating that such discrimination was prohibited.
Back then, in interviews with both the Los Angeles Times and Federal Times, Bloch said that he disagreed with that interpretation.
The OSC is an independent federal agency charged with protecting federal workers who have been discriminated against either because of their status as individuals or for revealing corruption or gross mismanagement, what is commonly called whistle-blowing.
Despite a Congressional outcry that led President George W. Bush to publicly state he expected all federal agencies to comply with the federal government’s non-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation, Bloch has yet to return the words "sexual orientation" to his agency’s materials or state that he will enforce such a policy.
The latest troubles for Bloch stem from his decision to open a Detroit-based Midwest field office. In January, in what some OSC employees claim was whistleblower retaliation, Bloch abruptly ordered the transfer of 12 Washington OSC office staff members to offices in Oakland, Detroit and Dallas. They were given ten days to decide to accept the transfers or face termination.
According to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), all the employees affected by this order were ones who in the past had voiced disagreement with Bloch’s stance on sexual orientation, or who had informed Congress and the media when Bloch first removed "sexual orientation" from the OSC Web site. The office’s only two openly gay employees were among those forced to choose between transfer and termination.
No employee personally hired by Bloch faced transfer.
The Detroit office was created under Bloch’s direct instruction. He claimed it was necessary to increase the OSC’s efficiency at processing and investigating complaints, and that it was the result of a careful, deliberative process undertaken only "after extensive discussions with staff and an outside assessment team’s review of the agency structure."
Of the seven employees ordered to Detroit, only two accepted the assignment. Those two employees announced this week that they have now found other employment and will not be reporting to the new branch.
"Scott Bloch is finding out what happens when you throw a reorganization and no one shows up," Ruch said.
As of now the Detroit office will be unmanned. The OSC will not reveal how much it is paying for the lease of the empty office space.
"This is at least the second time Bloch is in trouble for his reorganization," Ruch said.
A recent internal OSC memo reveals that the agency is having difficulty fulfilling its duties because of the sudden personnel loss. In minutes from a February 9, 2005 Employee Advisory Committee meeting, Bloch urged that those employees scheduled for departure be pressured to close as many open cases as they can before leaving. He also planned to bring in summer interns to assist in investigating and closing whistleblower cases.
The 12 reassigned employees, backed by three government watchdog groups, including PEER, and the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington-based gay advocacy group, have recently lodged a complaint with the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE), an umbrella organization composed of inspectors general and other oversight organizations, alleging their mandatory transfers were punishments for disagreeing with Bloch’s policies.
These employees also claim that the staff shortage at OSC has caused the agency to summarily dismiss, on Bloch’s orders, close to 1,000 whistle-blower cases without a full investigation. As well, the employees also claim that no complaints based on "sexual orientation" are being investigated.
Last week, after meeting with the complainants and OSC staff, Senators Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, the majority and ranking members on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Bloch requesting an explanation for his reorganization. Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, and a member of the committee, has indicated he will hold hearings.
Calls to the OSC for comment went unreturned.
Ironically, even though the OSC was created to protect government whistle-blowers, Bloch last year issued a gag order in his own office regarding the "sexual orientation" policy. This gag order extended to employees discussing the matter with members of Congress.
"[The] Special Counsel has directed that any official comment on or discussion of sensitive internal agency matters with anyone outside OSC must be approved in advance," the order read in part.
As well, Bloch has also made derogatory remarks to the press about "leakers" within his agency.
Both actions are considered prohibited personnel practices usually investigated by the OSC.
"Restraining employees from talking about problems within an office is a prohibited personnel practice," said Ruch. "His public comments coupled with his actions could be used to show that he is taking actions against people who are whistle-blowers or people he perceives as whistle-blowers."