Woman's Firing Marks Special Counsel's Troubles

The Office of Special Counsel's role is to investigate complaints from government workers who say they've been mistreated. For years, whistle-blower groups have complained that the watchdog agency is asleep. They say its chief, Scott Bloch — now the target of a Justice Department investigation — has ignored stacks of legitimate complaints from federal employees. Benetta Mansfield, former chief of staff of the National Mediation Board, is among them.

"This case had everything. It had whistle-blowing. It had prohibited personnel practices. It had a whole laundry list of things going on," Mansfield said.

Mansfield used to be chief of staff of the federal agency that handles labor disputes with airlines and railroads. In 2002, President Bush appointed his first new National Mediation Board member, a Texas lawyer named Ed Fitzmaurice.

"As soon as he got on board, he started using abusive language toward me — that I was bush league, that I was a pushy Jewish woman and he didn't need another one in his life," Mansfield said.

Fitzmaurice refused repeated offers to tell his side of the story. But other people corroborate Mansfield's account, including Fitzmaurice's former secretary Barbara Casey. Casey sat down for an interview with attorneys at the Office of Special Counsel in 2004.

The following year, she died of cancer. Her son gave NPR permission to use tape of the interview in which she said Fitzmaurice made derogatory remarks toward Mansfield.

It turns out, Fitzmaurice had a history with Mansfield, though she didn't know it. Years ago, Mansfield disqualified one of Fitzmaurice's friends from a union election. Fitzmaurice told his secretary that Mansfield would have to go because "she deep-sixed a good buddy" of his in Texas," Casey said.

Fitzmaurice never forgot what Mansfield had done.

"I've since come to know him as someone who's perfectly happy to lay in the weeds and wait for his chance again," said Frank Duggan, the man who brought Fitzmaurice to the National Mediation Board.

"In the first week that he came to work, he had three women crying — physically crying in the office. He's a bully. And he's particularly a bully with women," Duggan said.

Duggan said he is speaking out now to, in his words, atone for his sins.

"I really believe in public service, and this guy does not belong in public service. And I invented him. I coached him. I taught him how to get the job. I taught him about the National Mediation Board. I taught him about labor law. And I've never been so wrong in my life," Duggan said.

Fitzmaurice eventually followed through on his promise to get rid of Mansfield. With the help of others at the National Mediation Board, he downgraded her performance evaluation and demoted her.

So Mansfield took her case to the government office that is supposed to handle these types of problems — which brings us back to the Office of Special Counsel and Scott Bloch.

The office decided to investigate further, which is rare.

Sources with firsthand knowledge of the investigation say the Office of Special Counsel was prepared to act. Lawyers there drafted a document that would have stopped Mansfield's demotion — would have, but didn't.

The career attorneys handling Mansfield's case were forced out, for reasons having nothing to do with the case. For Mansfield, that was a catastrophe.

"You finally get over that hurdle, and a meteor hits your case and all of a sudden, it's destroyed," said Mansfield's lawyer, Beth Slavet.

The case went to a political deputy at the Office of Special Counsel, who threw it out.

Jim Mitchell, the office spokesman, said the case predates him so he can't comment on it specifically, but he also said the office can't pursue every case and still remain efficient.

"We have in the last few years made quite a bit of progress on getting rid of backlogs of whistle-blower cases, prosecuting cases, getting settlements for people, getting corrective action," Mitchell said.

Attorney Debra Katz says there are many cases like Mansfield's. Katz represents a group of federal whistle-blowers in a lawsuit against the Office of Special Counsel.

"Bloch came into office and instead of aggressively investigating these complaints, he started doing what he called getting rid of the backlog, and what that meant was really just dismissing complaints rather than investigating them," Katz said.

As for Mansfield, she eventually took her case to another panel. They worked out a settlement. Now she works for a union representing bus drivers and mechanics in North America.

Her former boss, Ed Fitzmaurice, remains in government at an agency called the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service.

Scott Bloch still heads the Office of Special Counsel, where work continues as before.

Note: The week this story aired, Ed Fitzmaurice was asked to resign from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. He left his job there on July 3.

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