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The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is one of those small corners of the government with an important mission. It's supposed to help protect federal whistleblowers and shield civil service workers from politics.

But during the George W. Bush administration, the office was engulfed in scandal, raided by the FBI, and its chief indicted for obstructing justice. It's into that environment that a new leader, Carolyn Lerner, arrived five months ago. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on the change that she's brought to a troubled office.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's not too long ago, employment lawyers say, that when federal employees came to them with concerns their bosses were breaking the law, they'd do anything to avoid the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. No more, says whistle-blower advocate Tom Devine.

TOM DEVINE: The agency has switched from being poison ivy for whistle-blowers to being the first option for organizations like ours that are always looking for the best way to defend people who commit the truth.

JOHNSON: Devine is legal director at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that helps government and private sector workers. The new special counsel, Carolyn Lerner, says she'd like to get the word out so she can help a lot more.

CAROLYN LERNER: We need to make sure that people know this agency exists. I think it may be one of the best kept secrets in government.

JOHNSON: If Lerner keeps up her recent pace, the office may not remain secret for much longer. She went public earlier this month with objections to how the Air Force had inadequately disciplined managers at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where three whistle-blowers reported remains of dead American service members had been mishandled.

LERNER: Because we're independent, we really can be an objective source for reviewing what the agency's internal investigations uncover and pointing out problems with those investigations.

JOHNSON: Debra Katz, a Washington employment lawyer who's followed the office for decades, took note.

DEBRA KATZ: By taking the position that she did and making it clear that she was not going to be a wallflower, but she would go toe-to-toe with the Air Force, she sent a very, very strong message that whistle-blowers will be protected.

JOHNSON: Mostly, Lerner has let her actions do the talking by intervening in court cases to protect whistle-blowers. That's what happened earlier this year when the military moved to cut off the salary of analyst Franz Gayl after Gayl said the Marines took too long to get mine-resistant vehicles to troops in Iraq. It's a delay that he says probably cost some service members their lives. Lerner's intervention helped the whistle-blower settle his case. He returns to work this week. Not everyone or even most people are so fortunate, Debra Katz says.

KATZ: Unless you protect people who are brave and they're conscientious and they risk their careers to do what is right to protect the public health and safety, then you will not have people coming forward, and we all suffer.

JOHNSON: Lerner's made some bold moves outside of the courtroom too. Her office enforces the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that tries to keep politics out of the federal workplace. But Lerner says the law is outdated, and she wants Congress to fix it.

LERNER: So, for example, a police officer in Pennsylvania who worked in the K-9 unit and had a dog that was paid for through federal funds couldn't run for school board.

JOHNSON: Lerner says she's uncomfortable enforcing a law that punishes people who want to serve their local communities, often for little or no extra money. It's just not fair, she says, and that's not what she joined the government to do. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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