It has become an entrenched trope, a go-to defense, for the Government Accountability Project and its defenders to claim that GAP “can’t help everybody,” or “they helped me for free,” when its performance as an accountability organization comes under questioning. This line of deflection–this conscious blurring of the line between its functions as lawyers and lobbyists–is so powerful that it survived two different radio shows unquestioned. Until now.

Recently, GAP’s Tom Devine was on the Peter B. Collins show with his client, TSA Whistleblower Robert MacLean, who won a victory in federal court (the same show where Devine and his client displayed poor judgment by adopting the tactics of bureaucratic bullies, and not the first time for Devine). Toward the end of the show, Collins asked Devine to respond to some critiques by DOE Whistleblower Joe Carson:

Peter B. Collins (38:13):

Tom, I’d also like you to react to some information and commentary that I’ve received from Joe Carson. And I- I can’t imagine that you’ve never heard of Joe Carson. He is a profilic writer and he has contacted many agencies and congressional committees and the White House over the years. He is- he describes himself as a successful whistleblower in the Department of Energy, where he is a nuclear engineer, in Tennessee, and he’s been very active on these issues. And his central focus is on the Office of Special Counsel, and the role that it has under the 1978 in protecting whistleblowers.

And he contends that there has been what he calls a “broken covenant” – this longtime failure to enforce these rules, and in particular for the OSC, to exercise its appropriate role in protecting whistleblowers. And he starts with the contention that most federal employees don’t even know about their rights under the Office of Special Counsel. Could you- I’m sure you heard from him, so could you tell me your viewpoint on the issues that he raises?

Here was Devine’s reply (39:29):

I hear from Joe all the time, relentless, and we actually represented him, in some of his earlier victories under whistleblower rights in the Department of Energy. So I’m very familiar with his perspective.

And there have been extensive periods of time where I’ve completely agreed with him about the Office of Special Counsel and in fact our organization tried to get the institution abolished, we thought it was a trojan horse for whistleblowers. I don’t think that he is really fair at giving credit where it was due. Some of the special counsels who really did stick their necks out and worked hard and get effective results protecting whistleblowers.

Probably the area where we’ve really agreed to disagree the most is- Joe has been attacking me for a few years- it used to be a big [unintelligible]- he’s been attacking because I disagree with him that we should sort of delegate the policies on whistleblower protection to the White House Office of Legal Counsel. He thinks that this would straighten things out for whistleblowers, and I’ve just been dubious because it’s the same office that was behind the memos on drones and on legalizing torture and everytime we’ve learned about an opinion they’ve had on whistleblowers it’s been to shrink or abolish whistleblowers rights. So we’ve agreed to disagree on that particular issue.

The Broken Covenant Dodge

Collins (41:00):

And do you share his characterization about what he calls the “broken covenant” that those who occupy the OSC have failed to operate within the law, and you, know, to properly report on cases of the PPP – what is that – the prohibited personnel practices?

Devine (41:22):

Yeah, that’s all the merit system violations. I think you just can’t generalize, Peter. There’s been some of the special counsels who not only broke the covenant, they tried to destroy it. There was a Special Counsel in the eighties named Alex Kozinski who actually taught courses to federal managers how to fire whistleblowers without getting caught by his own investigators. He would tutor them in his office, how to write up the terminations to fire whistleblowers.

Collins:

Is that the Kozinski who’s now a federal judge?

Devine:

He is the chief- the chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and if he hadn’t got caught by whistleblowers from the Office of Special Counsel, he’d be on the Supreme Court right now. There were 43 votes against his Ninth Circuit circuit confirmation, because of how he broke that covenant, betraying the trust that he had as a protector of whistleblowers.

Scott Bloch, the Special Counsel under the Bush Administration, his sentencing for whether or not he’d go to jail was postponed yesterday because the evidence had been doctored about why he shouldn’t go to jail, and he was such a horrible Special Counsel that he had to resign after the FBI raided his office, and he was covering up the evidence they were seeking. There have been some people who just- they were magnets for whistleblowers by their own staff at the whistleblower protection agency.

But it’s not fair to generalize. There are some other folks who really made a difference and Joe and other members of the community, they’re observers a lot of times of what happens. I have to deliver results for people whose professional lives are at stake. And I can tell you that, right now, the Office of Special Counsel is working their tails off, and they’re getting results for whistleblowers, and a lot of- their leadership is composed of former free speech activists and employee rights activists, their whole careers. It’s not fair to say that one institution is always good or always bad, that’s just not the way life operates. And right now, we’ve gone from warning whistleblowers not to sabotage themselves by filing complaints with the Office of Special Counsel. We’ve gone from that perspective five years ago to the Office of Special Counsel being the first option to help whistleblowers, and it’s completely just dependent on the results.

Cute. Notice, however, that Devine never really answered the specific question posed by Collins: “do you share his characterization about what he calls the ‘broken covenant’ that those who occupy the OSC have failed to operate within the law, and to properly report on cases of the PPP?”

Instead, Devine claims that “you just can’t generalize” and proceeds to distract with titillating tales of political intrigue (while attempting co-opt the broken covenant term, if not dismissing this author and others as mere observers who aren’t affected by OSC’s failures and who don’t need to deliver results. And hiding once again behind his role as a lawyer to defend his actions as a lobbyist.)

The focus on “results,” however, proves too much. What’s missing in Devine’s answer is any discussion of the law (as in “those who occupy the OSC have failed to operate within the law“).

Here are some hard facts regarding just one prong of Carson’s “broken covenant” theory:

  • Carson contends that federal employees do not have an effective way to bring forward concerns (i.e. ”protected disclosures”), particularly classified ones or ones that are otherwise prohibited from public disclosure, despite OSC being the primary mechanism for this, by virtue of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.
  • Since 1989, OSC has received 28 disclosures from whistleblowers within the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, and NGIA.
    • Of those, it referred none to the agency heads for internal investigations.
  • Since 1989, OSC has received 11,174 disclosures from other executive branch agencies, over which it has whistleblower protection jurisdiction.
    • Of those, 81 were disclosures that were prohibited by law to make publicly (i.e. to the media).
    • Of these 81 prohibited/classified disclosures, were referred to the relevant agencies for internal investigations.
    • Of these 81, only one involved foreign intelligence or counterintelligence information, requiring mandatory referral to the intelligence committees in Congress and the National Security Advisor.

Think about it: since 1989, of the thousands of disclosures OSC has received, only one merited confidential referral to the national security apparatus in Congress and the White House. This is so despite 9/11, the Iraq War lies, illegal torture, warrantless wiretapping, the drone strikes, and, of course, Sibel Edmonds’ explosive allegations. OSC’s failure to be a viable classified disclosure channel has cut across all tenures, all special counsels, and all administrations, including the special counsels over whom Devine weeps. So you can, in fact, generalize, contrary to Devine’s non-answer.

Rebuttal

In the second half of the show, Collins asked Carson and me to come on and provide a reaction to Devine’s interview. You can hear how pervasive the GAP-as-lawyers-not-lobbyists defense is when Collins, acting as devil’s advocate, pushed back against our arguments that GAP has cornered the market as a watchdog organization, by arguing that GAP cannot provide representation to all who seek its help. This is true. However, the critique against GAP is not that they aren’t omnipresent as counselors, but that they fail to use their clout and power as lobbyists responsibly.

For example, when Tom Devine’s role as a lobbyist is criticized, his defenders often downplay his clout (if not invoke their gratitude for his legal assistance – see?). But on Collins’ show, Devine himself proclaimed (at 37:45, first half) that MacLean helped give the entire national security community rights by lobbying Devine, who then got the President to issue PPD 19 (which bizarrely omitted the Office of Special Counsel). Devine cannot be both that powerful and a shrinking violet.

In this interview, Devine both accurately trumpeted his prominent role in whistleblower issues as well as showed how easily he weaves between his roles as lawyer and lobbyist. The two are not the same, and at times may conflict with one another. A discerning whistleblower would be wise to tell the difference.