Is It Time for Congress to Abolish the Office of Special Counsel?
Criminal Investigation of Special Counsel May Maroon Whistleblowers Seeking Help
Washington, DC — The criminal grand jury probe of Special Counsel Scott Bloch will cripple the federal office that is supposed to assist and defend whistleblowers for months to come, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Congress could short-circuit this lengthy period of paralysis by allowing whistleblowers to bypass the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in seeking redress.
“Now is the perfect time for Congress to consider a wholly new approach for whistleblower protection,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the OSC is up for re-authorization this session and both the House and Senate have already passed differing Whistleblower Protection Act reform bills which must be harmonized in a yet-to-be-scheduled conference. “If OSC is immobilized, it will be a major impediment rather than a key asset in effectively addressing employee reports of waste, fraud and abuse.”
By law, OSC has a statutory monopoly on handling the vast majority of federal whistleblower complaints and oversees federal investigations into disclosures of official wrongdoing. With its $15.3 million annual budget, it also prosecutes violations of the Hatch Act, which bars political activity on government time.
This Tuesday, FBI agents swooped down on OSC offices and Bloch’s home, armed with court-ordered subpoenas in a wide ranging obstruction of justice investigation. These obstruction charges arose out of a complaint filed by PEER, other groups and OSC employees against Bloch outlining a litany of malfeasance, including retaliation against internal whistleblowers, politicizing Hatch Act enforcement, imposing illegal gag orders, and dismissing more than 1,000 whistleblower cases without investigation.
In addition to subpoenaing Bloch, nearly a fifth of the entire OSC staff (17 out of approximately 90 current employees) was also subpoenaed. The FBI also seized computers and files from OSC offices. Magnifying the disruption, during the past several months, Bloch forced the resignation of more than a dozen attorneys and investigators through a series of purges and punitive reorganizations.
“Under Bloch, the performance of the Special Counsel had already diminished to the point where now it is arguably much worse than nothing at all,” Ruch added. “The question before Congress is whether this agency can be salvaged or whether it should be abolished so we can start afresh.”
For more than a year, PEER has urged Congress to eliminate OSC and in its place allow whistleblowers to pursue a range of remedies through mediation or litigation. Remaining OSC functions would be assigned to the Government Accountability Office, the Departments of Labor and Justice, under the PEER plan.
“Many of the legislative proposals now before Congress presume a functioning OSC – and that is no longer a realistic assumption,” Ruch added.