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Did a U.S. Senator Block Additional Funding for Whistleblower Protection as Payback?

1:54 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

A few days ago, it was revealed that U.S. Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) objected to, and got removed, a provision in the shutdown deal legislation that would have funded the Office of Special Counsel, the nation’s top federal whistelblower defender, at the levels proposed by the White House, $20.6M (a figure which itself has been deemed “conservative” to address whistleblower case backlogs).

What motivated Sen. Johanns to do this? One possible reason: payback for having been inartfully named in a January 2011 OSC report on inappropriate political activities by Bush Administration officials, around the 2006 election period. Johanns was the Agriculture Secretary at the time.

According to GovExec.com,

OSC faulted travel by Johanns to events with GOP candidates ahead of the 2006 election. It said several events just before the elections that the Agriculture Department concluded were official business and paid for with federal funds were clearly political and should have been funded by the campaigns.

One such event was a Johanns appearance with former Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to tout an expanded Forest Service facility in Albuquerque, N.M.

The report also cited instances where Agriculture deemed events political, such as an appearance by Johanns with then-Rep. Mark Kennedy in Minnesota- who was running for the Senate-where OSC said the agency violated the Hatch Act by failing to receive reimbursement.

Johanns objected to the report and provided documentation, which prompted a partial correction by OSC (updated versions of the report could not be accessed on OSC’s website at the time of publication update: cached version available here).

OSC currently faces record-high levels of whistleblower retaliation complaints and disclosures. In the past four years, OSC’s caseload jumped 29 percent while its budget increases went up only 6 percent.

The return on the investment speaks for itself:

OSC does not just spend taxpayers’ money; it returns substantial sums to the Federal government by pressing for corrective action to remedy waste and fraud. Since 2009, OSC calculates at least $11.4 million has either been directly returned to, or saved by, the government as a result of whistleblower disclosures to our agency. That figure, while impressive, does not reflect the full benefit of OSC’s work: By pursuing whistleblower disclosures, the agency has saved the government hundreds of millions of dollars by preventing wasteful practices and disasters from occurring or recurring.

It should be noted that OSC’s report was issued before the current Special Counsel, Carolyn Lerner, took office, in June 2011.
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Are Good Government Groups Quick to Praise the New Special Counsel?

10:42 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Is it too soon to say things like:

With this remarkable record and the extraordinary leadership of Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, we can expect that as disclosures continue to skyrocket and the caseload grows, [the Office of Special Counsel] will handle their investigations and litigation with utmost efficiency and integrity.

As the Project on Government Oversight did just this past week, or:

The track record under the helm of Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, who assumed office in 2011, is equally as unprecedented as its increased caseload and having increased productivity by over 50% in the past few years[.]

As the Government Accountability Project did a few days ago?

Consider that there are a few grumbles that have arisen so far concerning OSC’s performance:

Let me be clear: OSC deserves credit for the evident turnaround since the Scott Bloch era. Persistent underfunding continues, in part because the groups mentioned above have not pushed for it before. But this post is not so much about OSC’s performance today, as it is about grounding laudatory statements (and the propensity to make them) with facts. The groups above have a history of jumping to award OSC leadership when, frankly, it did not deserve it. The pattern may be repeating itself here. Facts matter, and the jury is still out.

OSC: Commerce Dep’t Inspector General Gagged Employees From Blowing Whistle

11:17 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

In a Kafkaesque turn of events, the Office of Special Counsel is alleging that top officials in the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General threatened subordinate employees with negative performance reviews if they didn’t sign non-disclosure agreements that barred them from exercising their rights to blow the whistle and petition Congress.

The Special Counsel petitioned the Merit Systems Protection Board to stay enforcement of the non-disclosure agreements, which she argued are an “any other significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” in retaliation for the employees’ potential for blowing the whistle – a/k/a their “perceived whistleblower” status.

The Special Counsel said in a press release Nov. 30 that “[b]ecause the act of disclosing the gag provision may itself be prohibited by the harsh terms of the agreements, OSC is protecting the employees’ identities.”

MSPB Member Mark A. Robbins, in a single-member decision, Nov. 29 granted the stay request for 45 days, adding that

For purposes of this nonprecedential single-member decision in this ex parte proceeding, I accept OSC’s assertion that the Former Employees’ inability to report perceived wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities as a result of signing the nondisclosure agreement may constitute a “significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” under 5 U.S.C. § 2302(a)(2)(A)(xi).“

Other examples of “any other significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” may be found here.

From OSC’s press shop:

OSC Granted Stay in Challenge to Commerce Department Gag Clauses

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Ann O’Hanlon, (202) 254-3631; aohanlon@osc.gov

WASHINGTON, D.C./November 30, 2012 –

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) yesterday granted a stay requested by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) prohibiting enforcement of unlawful gag clauses in settlement agreements between the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and four former employees of the OIG, each of whom was coerced into signing an agreement under threat of harm to their career prospects and future employment. The order is available here.

The agreements prohibit employees from voluntarily communicating with OSC or Congress. The employees were told that manufactured negative performance appraisals would be shared with prospective employers if the employees did not sign the nondisclosure agreements.

The MSPB’s action means that the personnel actions taken or threatened to be taken by OIG senior management must cease for 45 days, giving OSC further time to investigate the allegations. These personnel actions include the threatened communication with prospective employers and the imposition of significant changes in the employees’ working conditions.

The order concludes that an agreement restricting employees’ ability to report wrongdoing is a change in working conditions and is therefore a personnel action under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

In addition, the order applies the Lloyd-LaFollette Act, a 1912 law codifying the rights of federal employees to blow the whistle to Congress.

Because the act of disclosing the gag provision may itself be prohibited by the harsh terms of the agreements, OSC is protecting the employees’ identities.

“OSC is committed to ensuring that agencies do not interfere with whistleblowing to Congress,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “We are pleased that the MSPB has granted the stay so that OSC can further investigate this matter.”

Dissenters’ Digest for June 24–July 7

4:40 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

(photo: Serguey / wikimedia)

Dissenters’ Digest takes a look back at news stories covering whistleblowers, watchdogs, and government accountability. Look for it every other Saturday evening at www.dissentersdigest.com.

See You In Court: House Republicans vowed to take Attorney General Eric Holder to court over documents withheld from Congress in its Fast and Furious scandal investigation.

Defiant: Ignoring a surrender order by the London police, Julian Assange has remained in the Ecuador embassy while awaiting President Correa’s decision on his political asylum request.

Abstention: The Justice Department won’t prosecute Attorney General Holder following Congress’ historic contempt vote.

Below the Fold:
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Former Office of Special Counsel staffer looks backwards

7:29 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

From a comment to Joe Davidson’s Under Carolyn Lerner, special counsel office is doing its job now, observers say, in The Washington Post (June 28, 2012):

NIshimoto

6/29/2012 9:19 PM EDT

I quit OSC in disgust in 1983 after the selling out of the agency by Reagan’s appointee (still hard to say his name, now a federal judge) and MSPB chief judge Ruth Prokop’s hostility toward the concept of whistleblower protection and against OSC itself. Great attorneys and investigators had been hounded into oblivion when lucky – but into undeserved disgrace for most.

I hope Carolyn Lerner has exorcised those ghosts. Kudos and appreciations to her for her accomplishments.

To NIshimoto and everyone else: stay tuned for Dissenters’ Digest for 1982 and ’83.

(By the way, that Reagan appointee was Alex Kozinski, who is now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.)

Dissenters’ Digest for June 10-23

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Stonewalled, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

Dissenters’ Digest takes a look back at news stories covering whistleblowers, watchdogs, and government accountability. Look for it every other Saturday evening at www.dissentersdigest.com.

Contempt: A House committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to submit documents in connection with the Fast and Furious gunwalking scandal. President Obama invoked executive privilege, for the first time, to shield the documents from Congress. The measure may soon be presented to the House for a final vote. Meanwhile, Democrats are decrying the move as a political “witch hunt.”

Stonewalled: Senator Chuck Grassley is getting stonewalled by the Food and Drug Administration over an inquiry that it’s been spying on federal whistleblowers. The Senate and related House investigations were sparked by a lawsuit filed by six FDA whistleblowers who were allegedly targeted for surveillance. The National Whistleblowers Center is representing them in court. Relatedly, the Office of Special Counsel, which is also investigating the FDA over the same matter, released a memo this week to the federal government, urging agencies not to spy on whistleblowers. Doing so, the memo said, might lead OSC to conclude that retaliation is afoot.

Looking Backwards: President George W. Bush ignored a number of the CIA’s pre-9/11 warnings, according to new FOIA documents declassified and revealed this week.

Cover-Up: An Army Lt. General is accused of blocking a corruption probe in Afghanistan to help President Obama’s re-election.

Below the Fold:
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The White House may be in for a surprise regarding the Special Counsel’s independence

11:41 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

The White House.

(Photo: Chris Christner / Flickr)

Politico is reporting that the White House is rejecting calls for the Office of Special Counsel to investigate alleged national security leaks:

“No,” press secretary Jay Carney said when asked whether the president would agree to have the Office of Special Counsel investigate alleged leaks of classified information regarding U.S. intelligence operations. “The president,” Carney said, “insists that his administration take all appropriate and necessary steps to prevent leaks.”

However, the Office of Special Counsel is an independent agency and its leader, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, cannot be removed except by “the President only for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.

In addition, OSC has the following duty:

(a) The Office of Special Counsel shall

(3) receive, review, and, where appropriate, forward to the Attorney General or an agency head under section 1213, disclosures of violations of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety;

So, you see, if the Special Counsel receives allegations from employees or former employees who have direct information regarding the leaks, the law mandates that the Special Counsel receive and process such disclosures, without interference from the White House.

Here, I’m afraid Jay Carney may be speaking out of turn as it is not for the President to agree or disagree should the OSC receive allegations.

 

Dissenters’ Digest for May 13-19

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Whistle Suits (image: Truthout.org/flickr)

Dissenters’ Digest takes a look back at the week’s stories covering whistleblowers, watchdogs, and government accountability. Look for it every Saturday evening at www.mspbwatch.net/digest.

Federal Judge Strikes Down NDAA’s Indefinite Detention Provision: A federal judge in Brooklyn, New York struck down the indefinite detention provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, saying it constitutes an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment. The suit was brought by several journalists who feared their activities might fall under the reach of the law — substantially supporting al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces – without even knowing it, and facing indefinite detention for many years. The judge, Katherine Forrest, repeatedly offered government lawyers the opportunity to rebut the reporters’ fears, but they declined to do so.

Below the Fold:

–A Malaysian tribunal found George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfel, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington and William J. Haynes guilty of war crimes.

–The Washington Post editorial board calls on the Federal Aviation Administration to take whistleblowers’ complaints seriously.

–The ACLU is weighing in on behalf of Peter Van Buren, the State Department whistleblower who wrote a book and blog critical of his employer’s exploits in Iraq.

–A Homeland Security House subcommittee looks at corruption inside DHS.

–Employees at a nuclear waste site in Washington state are coming forward, saying too many shortcuts are being taken in the construction of a facility to dispose the waste.

–An FBI crime lab whistleblower’s 20 year campaign to expose and correct violations of defendants’ due process rights is beginning to bear fruit.

–House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa is alleging the Federal Maritime Commission may be “an agency in crisis.”

–Union protectionism in 1994 may haunt whistleblowers and the Office of Special Counsel in 2012.

–Several whistleblowers and advocacy groups will host an annual conference in Washington, D.C., May 21-23.

Send tips to tips@mspbwatch.net.

Dissenters’ Digest for April 15-21

4:00 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Dissenters’ Digest takes a look back at the week’s stories covering whistleblowers, watchdogs, and government accountability. Look for it every Saturday evening at www.mspbwatch.net/digest.

Justice Department Withheld Evidence of Flawed Forensic Procedures Used in Criminal Cases in the 1990′s: The Washington Post reports that the Department of Justice failed to notify defendants or their attorneys of possibly exculpatory evidence of flawed forensic procedures. FBI whistleblower Dr. Frederic Whitehurst disclosed improper procedures in the FBI crime lab almost 20 years ago, which led to a nine-year DOJ task force to determine if any defendants were wrongfully incarcerated. The Post notes in a separate article that the DOJ task force “operated in secret and with close oversight by FBI and Justice Department brass — including [then-Attorney General Janet] Reno and [FBI Director Louis] Freeh’s top deputy — who took steps to control the information uncovered by the group.” The National Whistleblowers Center, which counts Dr. Whitehurst as a director, has more coverage of this story.

Office of Special Counsel Roundup: The Office of Special Counsel issued a rare subpoena in the case of Pinal County (Arizona) Sheriff and Congressional candidate Paul Babeu, who is being investigated for violating the Hatch Act. The Arizona Republic reports that ”[t]he special counsel is looking into allegations that Babeu and several key aides were working on his congressional campaign with county resources or while on the clock.”

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner is quoted in a Federal News Radio article about the GSA conference spending scandal. Lerner states that “[t]he value of this isn’t just about the $820,000. It’s really also about the scrutiny it brings to government waste by this one example. . . . Congress is holding hearings. Agencies now are going to be treading more carefully about the way they are spending money.”

Elsewhere, Senior Legal Advisor to the Special Counsel Jason Zuckerman speaks at a panel about ethical culture in government. Zuckerman notes that “[w]e are seeing a huge increase now in people who blow the whistle” and that “[w]e are getting about 2,800 in prohibited personnel practice complaints annually; two years ago, it was about 2,200. In 2002, it was about 1,600.”

Below the Fold:

–The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reports S. 743, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, to the Senate.

–The prosecutor in charge of the bungled Thomas Drake whistleblower prosecution is leaving the Department of Justice.

–A whistleblower who exposed GSA’s excessive conference spending testifies in front of Congress.

–Following the conference scandal at the GSA, the nonprofit watchdog Cause of Action wrote to OMB seeking a government-wide audit of agencies’ adherence to whistleblower laws. Separately, CoA is seeking from the Office of Special Counsel any whistleblower complaints it received about the GSA.

–LGBT activists plan to press the White House to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from sexual orientation discrimination. Here’s a profile of one of the groups involved.

–A U.S. soldier blows the whistle on photos of troops posing with corpses in Afghanistan.

–A whistleblower from the Department of Veterans Affairs files a retaliation complaint with the Office of Special Counsel after disclosing “improper accounting measures regarding PTSD treatment of veterans.”

–Despite promising to strengthen the Federal Election Commission and “nominate members committed to enforcing our nation’s election laws,” President Obama has yet to come through on either promise.

–Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, launches a talk show on Russia Today.

–A State Department whistleblower alleges a high-level U.S. official engaged in sexual relations on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

–The chief of police at UC-Davis is stepping down following a scathing report about the widely-condemned pepper spray incident there last November.

–A federal judge rules against CIA whistleblower “Ishmael Jones,” who wrote a scathing book without the agency’s permission. The whistleblower will forfeit all book profits to charity.

–NSA whistleblower William Binney discusses the agency’s billion dollar surveillance facility in Bluffdale, Utah.

–The Center for Progressive Reform looks at how OSHA became stymied by anti-regulatory causes.

Slate looks at how America came to torture its prisoners.

–An ex-UK ambassador comes out in support of Bradley Manning.

–The mastermind behind the Watergate efforts to discredit Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg has died at the age of 80.

–Walmart covered up a massive bribery scandal in Mexico.

Send tips to info at mspbwatch dot net.

Intelligence community whistleblowers are being misled by government officials

8:14 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Consider this, from a New York Times article about NSA whistleblower Tom Drake:

[Drake] took his concerns everywhere inside the secret world: to his bosses, to the agency’s inspector general, to the Defense Department’s inspector general and to the Congressional intelligence committees. But he felt his message was not getting through.

So he contacted a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Needless to say, that decision cost Drake his career and almost his freedom.

Now consider this, from a recent correspondence between me and an official with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel:

OSC receives classified information in accordance with 5 USC 1213 and handles classified information in accordance with governing laws.

and

OSC has instituted several precautions to handle classified disclosures, including, but not limited to, the use of a locked safe to keep any such materials, and limiting access to such materials to employees that have the right type of clearance. In addition, OSC will soon place additional information on its website about the submission of classified disclosures.

Drake did not go to OSC. Indeed, he believed that OSC had no jurisdiction to help him. Another whistleblower tried to make a classified disclosure to OSC in the 1990′s about nuclear information falling into foreign hands, but OSC blew him off.

OSC may be in violation of the law authorizing it to receive classified disclosures (including highly classified ones), as well as from intelligence agency employees. But its past practice is now coming back to haunt it, and the new leadership is steadfastly sticking to the omnipresent “look forward, not backwards” mantra, preventing it from making a clean break with the past.

If OSC can accept classified disclosures, why aren’t agency heads informing their employees of this fact, as is their obligation per 5 U.S.C. 2301(c)?

If President Obama is so keen on stopping leaks, why isn’t he making a push to inform would-be leakers about the OSC option?

Meanwhile, agents with classified disclosures either trash their careers and subject themselves to prosecutions, or sit on their hands while flawed intelligence estimates justify false wars.

More here: