By William Wiley, August 8, 2017
If you’ve been around this business of civil service law very long, you’ve probably heard of the US Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with Robert Mueller’s Office of Special Counsel over at DoJ). That tiny little agency (150+) has the awesome responsibility of investigating allegations of “prohibited personnel practices,” perhaps most importantly, allegations of the mistreatment of federal employees because they have blown the whistle. Congress loves this agency because whistleblowers make public Executive Branch malfeasance, waste, and law-breaking. Whistleblowers disclosed the possibility of significant harm to our veterans at certain DVA facilities because of employee misconduct. Whistleblowers also told us that some of the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery were misplaced, that TSA was allegedly reducing staffing levels to an unsafe level, and that the Department of Interior was dangerously reducing the amount of money devoted to protecting drivers on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Here at FELTG, we often work with agencies who are undergoing an OSC investigation into possible whistleblower reprisal. If you are a repeat reader of this here newsletter, you know that we have previously expressed concern at some of the tactics we’ve seen investigators from that office use. Without rehashing those specifics, a couple of quotes from others might make the point from a different source. In our fantastic and fabulous seminar MSPB Law Week (next offered in DC September 11-15), we work with about 50 agency practitioners on many topics relevant to MSPB law, whistleblower reprisal investigations among them. Recently, we asked a group of attendees if any had ever been through an OSC investigation. Several attendees raised their hands. When we asked for take-aways from those investigations, a number of agency representatives volunteered their succinct perception and advice regarding the experience:
“Overreaching, intimidating, and scary.”
“One-sided and aggressive.”
For the un-initiated, OSC responds to claims of whistleblower reprisal from employees – if it believes that they may have merit – by contacting the responsible agency and asking for documents, phone records, emails, hard drives, privilege logs, contact information for former employees, schedules for witness depositions, and just about anything else it expects might be relevant to the reprisal claim. In our FELTG experience, the last response we helped an agency with required that we conduct document-by-document review of over 3,000 emails covering the past two years. (There went another of our Saturdays spent trying to help the civil service function with greater accountability.)
In the past as a practical matter, agency responses to OSC document requests were something of a dance; e.g., OSC would ask for five years of emails, we would offer two. OSC would demand emails that in any way mentioned the complainant, and we would offer only those relevant to the personnel action at issue. OSC would ask for emails between agency counsel and agency management, and we would refuse based on attorney-client privilege. Offer and counter-offer, threatening and responding to threats, sometimes cursing and spitting (among ourselves, of course … NEVER curse nor spit at an OSC investigator). Eventually OSC would get enough information on which to make a prosecution decision and the agency would retain some degree of confidentially in its records.
Well, my friends, that’s all about to be history. The Senate recently passed a bill, which the House will no doubt agree with, that will provide the following:
- The Special Counsel will be authorized to have timely access to all records, data, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material available to the applicable agency that relate to an investigation, review, or inquiry.
- The Special Counsel will be authorized to request from any agency the information or assistance that may be necessary for the Special Counsel to carry out its duties, and require the agency to provide to the Special Counsel any record or other information that relates to an investigation.
- A claim of attorney client or attorney work product privilege by an agency, or an officer or employee of an agency, shall not prevent the Special Counsel from obtaining any material described above.
“Office of Special Counsel Reauthorization Act of 2017” S. 582
Hard to give OSC much broader authority than this. No requirement that an OSC investigator establish relevance for the information, so fishing is allowed. You can pack away that little JD behind your name if you thought it would allow you to engage in confidential communications with your employer. In fact, there’s no requirement that OSC tell the agency anything other than, “Here’s a list of the materials we need, and we would like them by COB today. Thank you very much.”
There’s no clear enforcement authority within the legislation, so we don’t know exactly how OSC can go after any agency officials who refuse to comply with its materials demand. Historically, OSC has taken the position informally that a management official who does not obey its orders is committing a prohibited personnel practice, violating the merit systems principles. 5 USC 2302(b)(12). Unfortunately, we have no case law to direct you to for clarification as to exactly how all this works out and just where OSC’s ability to prosecute an offending management official starts and stops.
Hey, maybe this is the way that the civil service should be. If this bill becomes law, it will certainly free up my Saturdays for other things when I don’t have to be concerned about reviewing thousands of documents for privileged communications. If you are an agency lawyer and your blood begins to run cold when you read this legislation, chill. We have members of Congress today who believe that the civil service should be at-will employment. Turning over the keys and the codes to the agency’s files and communications is just another drip in the drip-drip-drip of civil service change.
So, if you don’t like it, close your eyes, think of England, and get used to it. Or, as the participant in our class suggested a couple of months ago, when you get that call from the friendly OSC investigator notifying you that a whistleblower reprisal investigation has begun, just quit.
Unemployment may well be the better option. [email protected]