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A federal office that got into trouble during the Bush Administration is about to get a new leader. The Office of Special Counsel represents federal government whistleblowers and victims of discrimination. White House Correspondent Ari Shapiro has learned that President Obama plans to nominate a new head for that office today.
ARI SHAPIRO: The U.S. special counsel is supposed to serve a five-year term. But during the Bush administration, Scott Bloch never made it to the end of his term. He was removed from office and later pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. His sentence is still pending, but his downfall came after years of high drama. Jim Mitchell was Bloch's spokesman, until Bloch ousted him.
JIM MITCHELL: I gave a lot of credit to the career staff for being able to get their work done in the eye of Hurricane Scott. He became very defensive after the FBI raided the office.
SHAPIRO: That FBI raid in 2008 was trying to find out whether Bloch erased files from his computer to obstruct a federal investigation. There had been charges that Bloch was retaliating and discriminating against his own employees. Danielle Brian of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight calls Bloch's tenure one of the most bizarre episodes in whistleblower history.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Not only did he really not believe in the mission of the agency, but he was actually retaliating against his own employees, which is quite extraordinary, given that was his job, was to protect employees from this retaliation.
SHAPIRO: Whistleblowers across the federal government say for years now, they've had no good place to turn. Tom DeVine is legal director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.
TOM DEVINE: Literally hundreds of whistleblowers every year who can't afford a due process hearing or trial are defenseless. They can be fired virtually at will. And if they go to the Office of Special Counsel, they'll be on an endless treadmill.
SHAPIRO: The same is true of government workers who are fired for their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or other protected classes. The Office of Special Counsel is supposed to look out for them, but experts in the field say the office has been a dysfunctional shell. And Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight says the inaction has consequences.
BRIAN: The lack of leadership at the Office of Special Counsel and the lack of strong protections, legal protections for these employees is what is driving these people outside channels to the newspapers and to WikiLeaks.
SHAPIRO: The Obama Administration has helped whistleblowers in other ways. It's pushed hard for a whistleblower bill in Congress that now seems on the verge of passing. And because this White House has been so active in these other areas, government oversight groups were baffled that the president took two years to nominate someone to run the Office of Special Counsel. Last week, Tom DeVine of the Government Accountability Project said he couldn't understand the White House's thinking.
DEVINE: Whistleblower rights groups are very encouraged and optimistic that it seems like the appointee will be from a very short list of outstanding candidates, maybe the best special counsel in history. But it seems like we're waiting for Godot.
SHAPIRO: Lerner founded a civil rights and employment law firm here in D.C., and she has worked on the sorts of retaliation and discrimination cases that make up the special counsel's workload.
DEBBIE KATZ: She's a great choice.
SHAPIRO: Debbie Katz is a private lawyer who represents government whistleblowers, and she's familiar with Lerner's work.
KATZ: She has a lot to do to restore credibility in this office to make federal employees willing to go to that office with their complaints. The morale in that office is terrible now, and she's going to have her work cut out for her.
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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