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WANTED: A Tenacious Watchdog Senator for the Federal Civil Service

12:16 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Position Available

Wanted: A tough, principled, and tenacious senator who is willing to play a much-needed prosecutorial role on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The incumbent is expected to become the conscience of the civil service system and the moral compass of the federal bureaucracy.

Qualifications

Must be:

  • Fiercely independent;
  • An expert in civil service laws;
  • Willing to confront wrongdoing, corruption, cronyism, and coverups in government, wherever they may occur;
  • Willing to reach out beyond the traditional Washington accountability bubble and listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens and federal employees;
  • Excited about holding agencies’ and watchdogs’ feet to the fire; and
  • Willing to resign or blow the whistle loudly before forsaking whistleblowers and their civil rights for business as usual in Washington.

Interested candidates may contact info@mspbwatch.net for more information.

GAP Reaches Out to Whistleblower Community to Protect Rights, Six Months Too Late

12:08 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

The Government Accountability Project issued a call today for whistleblowers to submit friend-of-the-court briefs to the Merit Systems Protection Board to support the retroactive application of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. MSPB is in the process of deciding whether to apply the WPEA retroactively to scores of cases it had to put on hold, given that the new law overturns several harmful precedents. The issue of retroactivity is a legal one, centering on whether Congress spoke clearly in intending that the WPEA apply retroactively. This “clear statement rule” was imposed by a 1994 Supreme Court case, Landgraf v. USI Film Products, Inc., stemming from the principle that “retroactivity is not favored in the law.”

A year ago, when the WPEA was still in committee, this author reached out to the lead lobbyist in charge of the WPEA, Tom Devine of GAP, to alert him to the fact that the WPEA may not apply retroactively. Devine sent a memo to his congressional contacts, and later in the spring the overseeing Senate committee included language in a Senate report favoring retroactivity. This was followed by a floor statement from Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) in the same vein. There is no explicit retroactivity language in the bill itself, however. Therefore, as noted by GAP’s email today, all of this may not be enough. Depending how the MSPB, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and possibly the Supreme Court rule, there is a strong possibility that one or more of these bodies may decide that only bill language counts. What it will come down to, essentially, is the legal philosophies of individual judges and decision-makers, and how much credence they give to individual floor statements and committee reports versus bills passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the President.

Now GAP has issued a call for whistleblowers to submit briefs to the MSPB, by February 15, saying that “Enough whistleblowers writing to the Board about your whistleblowing disclosures (and the public stakes), will help to underscore the weight of this decision by the MSPB.” This will be a weighty decision by the Board, no doubt, but public sentiment may not be relevant or sufficient to resolve a legal question.

Unfortunately, such a call for public sentiment would have been critical when the WPEA was debated, when Congress could take into account policy preferences in a way that courts may not. The record is clear that GAP did not conduct a transparent and inclusive approach to lobbying in 2011 and 2012. It’s disheartening therefore, but not surprising, that GAP’s call for help today is a consequence of its secretive and exclusive approach to advocacy.

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GAP Open Call for Whistleblower Amicus Briefs

OSC Notice of Intent to File Amicus Brief – Jan. 10, 2013

MSPB Amicus Order – Jan. 16, 2013

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.

Dissenters’ Digest for March 25-31

3:00 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.

Department of Justice’s Recent Actions Worry Accountability and Transparency Advocates: A number of actions taken by the Department of Justice have caught the attention of government accountability groups and civil libertarians this week.

First, Wired reports that the FBI advised its agents in training materials that they may “bend or suspend the law and impinge upon the freedom of others” under certain situations. That training material has since been changed.

Next, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing focused on the misconduct of federal prosecutors in the trial of the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. A $1 million525-page court-appointed report found that these prosecutors withheld key evidence from Stevens’ defense counsel, in violation of ethical rules. The Stevens case was dropped by Attorney General Holder in April 2009. Following the publication of the report on May 15, Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation to prevent the reoccurrence of the same prosecutorial misconduct, which was met with anonymous opposition by DOJ officials. Emptywheel and the Blog of Legal Times have coverage of that opposition.

Finally, a DOJ proposed rule has caught the attention of Senators and FOIA advocates, who noted that DOJ seemed to be usurping the role of the newly-created FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Service (OGIS). OGIS is an agency within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and was created by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 to mediate disputes between requesters and federal agencies. Its station with NARA is not without purpose, as housing it within DOJ – which is responsible for defending federal agencies in FOIA lawsuits – would have created a conflict of interest. Senators Patrick Leahy and Jon Kyl sent a letter to Attorney General Holder, the Project on Government Oversight reports. DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs responded to POGO with a clarification that seems to put that particular matter to rest, but another FOIA matter is still under dispute.

Supreme Court Weakens Privacy Act: In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Privacy Act does not authorize damages for emotional distress, NPR reports. The suit was brought by a pilot who sued the Social Security Administration for disclosing information to the FAA relating to his HIV status, causing him to lose his license and suffer emotional distress. In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor writes that the ruling “cripples the Act’s core purpose of redressing and deterring violations of privacy interests.” The Washington Post has additional coverage.

Congressmen Support Long-Suffering Whistleblower: Three House members recently submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in support of TSA Whistleblower Robert MacLean, according to the Orange County Register. In 2003, MacLean disclosed to the press a TSA plan to cut back on federal air marshals at a time of heightened security alerts. This prompted congressional outrage and the TSA plan was scrapped. MacLean’s case has been tied up in litigation since 2006, when he was terminated from the TSA. GovExec and GAP have additional coverage.

Obama Official Declares “Zero Tolerance” on Veterans’ Discrimination: John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, declared “zero tolerance” for discrimination against uniformed service members returning to their civilian jobs. Berry’s comments follow a report last month by The Washington Post that the U.S. government is the top offender of USERRA, the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which is designed to protect service members from discrimination in the workplace.

Below the Fold:

–The State Department moves to fire a prominent critic and whistleblower.

–GAO: Air Force has a disproportionate number of whistle-blower complaints within DOD.

–OccupyEPA takes to the streets, demands administrator’s resignation.

–A foreclosure fraud whistleblower reports being harassed by mortgage lender despite winning an $18 million award.

–A whistleblowers’ lawyer and a corporate lawyer mix it up on a whistleblower panel.

–Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduces a bill to reform the Senior Executive Service.

–The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board took no action to study work conditions at the Office of Special Counsel following the controversial tenure of ex-Special Counsel Scott Bloch, according to a recent FOIA request.

–A House Subcommittee hearing on low morale at the Department of Homeland Security but fails to call any employees as witnesses.

Send tips to info at mspbwatch dot net.

Anatomy of an Oversight Breakdown

5:39 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Earlier today, a nominee of one party appeared in front of a lone Senator of the opposite party. These men traded cordial remarks while discussing the future of the nominee’s legal and political career. Mark A. Robbins, nominee for the Merit Systems Protection Board, appeared in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which was represented solely by Senator Daniel Akaka.

Akaka began by introducing Robbins, who was flanked by his parents and many of his friends. After going over his resume, Akaka swore in Robbins and handed him the floor. Here’s what Robbins had to say.

This was followed by a few softball questions, and the matter was over and done with in less than an hour.

What did not take place:

Any serious discussion of the MSPB’s current difficulties, Robbins’ plans for helping to remedy them, and whether MSPB will fulfill its mandate as originally designed by Congress. To hear it from Robbins’ himself (and I was there), you would think that MSPB was doing just fine and was in no need of any course correction.

My blog – its very reason for existence – is proof to the contrary.

Sadly, Akaka played along with this charade, and the NGOs who deign to represent the whistleblower and good government community (and who indeed have a near-monopolistic hold on Congress’ attention) were nowhere to be found. Not one word has been uttered from the press shops of GAP, POGO, MISC, or NWC about Robbins’ nomination. Maybe maintaining cordial relations is more important than holding government officials’ feet to the fire; maybe discussions take place behind closed doors and out of public sight; maybe it doesn’t really matter who the nominee is as long as the whistleblowers keep coming in through the front door.

The Civil Service Reform Act was signed into law in 1978. At the time, it was landmark legislation that was motivated by the abuses of the Watergate scandals. The Whistleblower Protection Act was passed in 1989, a year before the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA has achieved public renown and near-constitutional status. No one would think of repealing it or letting its provisions go unenforced. But how many Americans have heard of the CSRA or WPA? How many know the turbulent history of the Office of Special Counsel, assuming they’ve even heard of it? How many realize that the WPA is one of the least observed laws in the U.S. Code?

It’s been over a dozen years since whistleblower legislation was passed by Congress. But do these new, enhanced laws matter if they can be gutted and ignored before the ink dries?

It’s not enough to pass new laws, or to make sure the ones in the books are enforced. If we really care about good government, it’s also important to raise the profile of these laws to near-constitutional levels. It starts by practicing transparency, by asking the tough questions regardless of impact on personal relationships, and by looking past transactional, beltway politics.