Scott Bloch’s Sad Saga

BY Hans Johnson

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Openly gay staff members bore the brunt of Bloch's wrath and were the focus of his reassignment plans.

On freedom, the Bush administration speaks with a forked tongue. Executive rhetoric at the start of the second term has taken a welcome turn toward prodding other nations to respect human liberty. But such exhortations ring hollow–if not downright mendacious–in the face of what the president’s appointee at the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is doing to undermine civil rights, the rule of law and the legacy of public service here at home.

The saga of Scott Bloch and mismanagement at the OSC has persisted for a year and a half–under the radar of the national press. The agency upholds nondiscrimination policy and ensures protection for federal workers who blow the whistle on corruption, waste or abuse. The OSC is one reason public agencies have grown increasingly diverse and efficient, and it has traditionally done its job enforcing the federal workforce rulebook outside the crush of media scrutiny. But this low profile has become a cloak of obscurity that Bloch has ingeniously exploited.

Bloch began his tenure as Special Counsel in January 2004 following a stint on a Justice Department task force to secure selected churches a place at the trough of federal aid. Critics, including two former directors of the White House’s “faith-based initiative,” have lambasted that drive as a repudiation of fiscal discipline and a danger to churches’ integrity. Legal observers warn that the effort threatens to subvert the First Amendment’s safeguards against government interference in religion and weakens workplace anti-bias laws. No such scruples seem to bother Bloch in his assault on principle and precedent at the OSC.

In February 2004, Bloch began to roll back a 1975 policy barring discrimination against federal workers based on sexual orientation. He expunged mentions of anti-gay bias from the OSC Web site and hard-copy forms and notices. In April, following protests from labor and advocacy groups that his backroom maneuvering was causing confusion, he retreated. But by June, he was at it again, hemming and hawing on whether anti-gay bias was fair game in the workforce. And in July, instead of taking responsibility for his own hedging, he blamed his critics for “misunderstandings of the facts.”

But the limited, public skirmish over the anti-bias policy was just a hint of the massive attack Bloch undertook inside the OSC. By March of this year, he was beyond resorting to fancy footwork or smarmy correspondence. He faced a lawsuit that shattered the silence he sought to maintain on the agency’s inner workings. The complaint combines hair-raising accounts of Bloch’s mismanagement, repression and retaliation from a host of OSC staff with charges from a coalition of watchdog groups of Bloch’s cronyism and assaults on transparency.

This alarming chronicle recounts an office climate pervaded by fear and fixated on secrecy. It also details insider hiring, slapdash dismissals of whistleblower complaints, staff reassignments to field offices and sudden departures by loyal and longtime staff members that have left the office crippled. Openly gay staff members appeared to bear the brunt of Bloch’s wrath and were a focus of his reassignment plans.

A decimated and demoralized staff is not an efficient one. In April, with its chief expert on enforcing limitations on federal workers’ politicking long gone, Bloch faced rebuke from an administrative judge for poor reasoning in bringing two complaints against federal workers who merely wrote an e-mail expressing political views. In May, a Senate oversight panel called Bloch on the carpet for the turmoil in his office.

“What we see Bloch doing on so many things is kind of extreme,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Media coverage has slowly creaked to life. In late April, Pride At Work, the AFL-CIO affiliate for gay workers, honored Travis Elliott, one of the workers who left OSC during Bloch’s reign.

A part-time law professor and attorney, Bloch held a trump card in the far-right game of claiming spoils and appointments in the Bush administration: affiliation with the extremist Claremont Institute of California. Hostile to government power during the Clinton years, Claremont has taken a radical detour under Bush, with a defense of sovereignty that borders on the authoritarian. Even affiliates like game-show host Pat Sajak cannot put a happy face on its propaganda, which include attacks on homosexuals and twisted justifications of torture.

For the past 18 months, Bloch has engaged in similar contortions to undo 30 years of workplace policy protecting federal workers. His placement at OSC is an undeserved trophy for the most extreme domestic foes of church-state separation and nondiscrimination policy.

Bloch’s continued status as special counsel, at Americans’ expense, diminishes the country’s reputation for merit-based civil service and reinforces doubts about our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. For a president eager to promote America as a beacon of freedom, Bloch is a dim bulb in dire need of replacement.

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.

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