When Scott Bloch took over at the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in January of this year, he was a relatively unknown figure brought over by the Bush Administration from the Justice Department's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Few could have suspected that the agency would spend a good part of the year embroiled in, and responding to, a series of controversies involving charges of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the federal workplace, allegations of cronyism in the agency's hiring practices, and charges that the OSC wasn't paying enough attention to a number of whistleblower reports of waste, fraud and abuse under President Bush.
Early on, Bloch incurred the wrath of the gay community as well as several Democratic members of the House by insisting that the agency review a 1978 law which protected employees and job applicants from being terminated for issues unrelated to their job. Now, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is charging Bloch with withholding records about its own personnel practices, including a contract with a former headmaster of a Catholic boarding school who "left in the wake of allegations concerning priests sexually preying on young students."
In late March, while Democratic legislators were calling on the President to remove or repudiate Bloch, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a powerful Washington, D.C. conservative lobbying group, rushed to his defense: "Firing...Bloch or forcing him, by any means, to reverse his position on this critical matter would be an affront to pro-family Americans, and would be an unwarranted punishment of a public official for merely upholding the rule of law, and the proper limitations on government power."
By early April, the brouhaha created by Bloch appeared to be resolved when the White House insisted he issue a statement signifying that gay and lesbian workers would continue to be protected by the 1978 law. But according to Federal GLOBE, the umbrella organization for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual employee support groups in Federal workplaces, Bloch continues to refuse "to return items to the OSC web site which directly affirm the protections." (For more on this, and Bloch's background, see "Bloch-ing justice -- When Scott Bloch became head of the Office of Special Counsel he declared war on equal protection for gays in federal workplaces.")
Last month, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) announced the filing of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act against the OSC alleging that a series of non-competitive hires have taken place. In other words, the agency that is "supposed to police compliance with federal civil service rules" was "circumventing civil service rules by using no-bid consultants and hiring on a non-competitive basis."
"Bloch's personnel practices are taken straight from The DaVinci Code rather than the civil service manual," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a mid-November press release. "The mission of the Special Counsel is to protect the merit system, not subvert it."
PEER is seeking copies of contracts and work products from the OSC for Alan Hicks, a former headmaster of St. Gregory's Academy (a Catholic boarding school) who, PEER claims, "left in the wake of allegations concerning priests sexually preying on young students." According to PEER, Bloch has retained Hicks as a special consultant. PEER is also seeking information on any 'no-bid management consultant contracts' allowed by Bloch."
PEER claims that Bloch has hired what some OSC staff members have characterized as his own "palace guards": "Bloch has brought in a series of special consultants and non-competitive hires, including recent graduates of the ultra-conservative Ave Maria law school," the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based law school founded by Dominos Pizza's Tom Monaghan, the long-time conservative Catholic activist and philanthropist. According to PEER, several of the "new non-competitive hires have been assigned to career positions, working for career managers who had no input into their selection; in fact, the managers did not meet the new hires until the day they started work."
Just as the FRC's Perkins stepped in to defend Bloch earlier in the year, this time William Donohue, the president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was quick to brand PEER as "Catholic-bashers." Donohue claimed that the environmental group had opposed Bloch when he was appointed "because PEER, a left-wing consortium of activist lawyers, was upset with Bloch's resume," and because the organization has a history of being hostile "to the public expression of religion."
According to Donohue, PEER "lobbied Congress to remove an eight-foot cross atop the Mojave National Preserve in California, and it has sought to censor books at National Park bookstores that offer a Christian interpretation of nature."
Donohue was referring to the controversy stemming from the sale of a creationist text entitled "Grand Canyon: A Different View," in park bookstores and museums. The book's editor, Tom Vail, a former Colorado River guide, wrote that for years he'd take folks down the river and told them that the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of years. "Then I met the Lord," he wrote. "Now, I have a different view of the Canyon, which, according to the Biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old." The 104-page book contains essays and observations from 23 "creation scientists and theologians."
"What is surprising," said the Catholic League's Donohue, "is PEER's boldness: it is not every day that Catholic bashers put their bigotry on public display. By referencing The DaVinci Code to make his point, Ruch seeks to conjure up images of maniacal Catholics who conspire together to take over society through any and all means. Lucky for him real Catholics practice restraint."
While Bloch is assembling a small army of true believers at the OSC, another mini-scandal is brewing, this one related to the pursuit of whistleblower complaints. PEER recently charged the agency with failing to investigate the mounting number of reports by federal employees of waste, fraud and abuse under President Bush. According to PEER, whistleblower reports have nearly doubled since the 2001 fiscal year, going from 380 cases to a reported 535 cases in FY 2003; "barely one percent of these cases (11 of 1091) was referred to agency heads for investigation"; and "the backlog of pending whistleblower reports has more than doubled, to 690 from the backlog of 287 cases in FY 2001." According to PEER the OSC "is supposed to make a determination as to whether a report merits investigation within 15 days but this deadline is almost never met, with many matters left hanging for months or years."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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