WASHINGTON -- Sen. George Voinovich has done it again. Yesterday's hearing of the Senate Committee on Oversight of Government Management had all the trappings of honest inquiry, but Voinovich (R-Ohio) surrendered it to Democrats for a show trial of U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch.
With Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Daniel Akaka (D-HI) on the offense, Voinovich's hearing aired special interest complaints against Bloch's tenure as head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). The OSC reviews and refers whistleblower disclosures, prohibited personnel practices, and other federal employment complaints. As detailed in these pages last month, public employee unions and gay rights groups have attacked Bloch for reorganizing OSC, quickly processing the OSC's massive case backlog, and eliminating from the OSC website language expanding protected class status to sexual orientation.
Bloch offered a spirited defense against these charges Tuesday in his prepared testimony. "Given the widespread press about these historic backlogs and the GAO report, it is indeed ironic that we are now being subjected to such scrutiny for having addressed the backlog, studied the source of the problems, and embodied a creative and long-lasting solution to the problem," Bloch told the committee.
The subcommittee seemed most concerned that Bloch only allowed employees reassigned to Detroit ten days to accept the relocation, a timeline Bloch said is common. Though Bloch extended the deadline by another ten days when senators complained, Sen. Lautenberg was not satisfied. "It's terrible, terrible, to say to an employee who may have lived in an area ten or twenty years or whatever and say, 'Okay, you've got ten days, go do whatever you want to do,'" Lautenberg said. "You said that there was case law to substantiate it, but at what point does soul creep in to case law?"
Voinovich and the Democrats rehashed past accusations, as if they hadn't participated in the discussion until now. In lengthy letters to the GAO, Voinovich's committee, and House investigators, Bloch has justified the OSC reorganization as well as touted the OSC's progress in processing its massive backlog.
But senators on a public relations mission can be less than concerned about facts. When Bloch voiced his personal concern for his employees and contrition about the quick deadline for the directed reassignments, Lautenberg was unmoved. "We're going to judge you based not so much on what you say today, but on the actions you've taken thus far." In other words, Bloch's presence was almost unnecessary to Lautenberg.
Carl Levin, though, needed a ready victim for his brow-beating. After strolling into the committee room about 45 minutes into the hearing, Levin interrogated Bloch over OSC's protection of federal employees discriminated because of sexual orientation. Bloch attempted to explain that federal statutes and case law do not explicitly include sexual orientation as a protected class, but that his office is directed to protect against all discrimination unrelated to on-the-job conduct. Repeatedly, Bloch was midway through an answer when Levin cut him off and demanded a quick yes-or-no. After a few minutes of the rapid question and interruption routine, Levin snapped, "Why'd it take five minutes to get that answer out of you?"
Levin wasn't the only one whose hostility toward Bloch appeared unjustified by the special counsel's patient demeanor and presentation of the facts. Before he could ask a question of Bloch, Sen. Akaka lent credence in his opening statement to charges that the manner in which Bloch reduced the OSC backlog "is suspect." But he wasn't bold enough to accuse Bloch directly. Like Voinovich saying that Bloch's leadership has been "perceived as controversial," Akaka couched his attacks in language like, "It appears." In this venue, innuendo replaces argument or genuine inquiry.
Audience members also contributed to the show trial atmosphere; several of them were heard disputing Bloch's testimony. When Bloch defended the OSC career staff, one middle-aged man in a suit loudly hissed. OSC spokeswoman Cathy Deeds said afterward she recognized as many as seven former employees at the hearing.
Where were Scott Bloch's defenders? There were none present, though Voinovich and Akaka seemed to soften toward the end of the hearing. Still, the most dignified of a rather undignified set was Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). Carper arrived well over an hour and 15 minutes late, but when he took his turn questioning Bloch, he was exceptionally respectful and honestly inquisitive.
Two normally outspoken conservatives, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) sit on the subcommittee, but did not attend the hearing. Coburn's office was unavailable for comment and Coleman's office did not return TAS's phone call Tuesday. Senate Government Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) did not attend.
Still, the show trial may have been all show and no trial. The Republicans' absence likely indicates that the hearing was nothing more than a Democratic (plus Voinovich) gripe session and that Bloch effectively answered the serious questions beforehand. OSC spokeswoman Deeds said, "We think it went as expected." Sen. Voinovich's office wasn't sure what to expect in the future since Akaka had originally requested the hearing. Voinovich spokeswoman Marcie Ridgeway said the chairman seemed pleased, "He was asking some tough questions, but got good responses."
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