- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security demoted a senior career employee who confidentially complained to the agency’s internal watchdog that political appointees were interfering improperly with requests for federal records by journalists and others.

The chairman of the House committee investigating those practices told the Obama administration that the decision “appeared to be an act of retaliation.”

“Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The department said it had done nothing wrong.

Mr. Issa urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to remind employees about their rights and whistle-blower protections and to make agency managers “aware of the consequences for retaliation against witnesses who furnish information to Congress.”

He accused the administration of improperly demoting Catherine Papoi, the former deputy unit chief in charge of the Freedom of Information Act. His charge raised the stakes in the broad congressional inquiry into President Obama’s promises to improve government transparency.

“Denying or interfering with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law,” Mr. Issa wrote in a five-page letter obtained by the Associated Press. “Federal officials who retaliate against or otherwise interfere with employees who exercise their right to furnish information to Congress are not entitled to have their salaries paid by taxpayer dollars.”

The department said Ms. Papoi technically was not demoted because she never lost pay or benefits. Yet Ms. Papoi’s new boss, Delores J. Barber, took over Ms. Papoi’s title and moved into Ms. Papoi’s office.

Ms. Papoi, who has a law degree, earns between $99,628 and $129,517. Under the federal employment system, a demotion usually involves loss of a pay grade.

Ms. Papoi, who applied for the new position ultimately awarded to Ms. Barber, is on leave. The department said a panel of career employees recommended Ms. Barber over Ms. Papoi. The political appointee whom Ms. Papoi accused of illegal behavior, chief privacy officer Mary Ellen Callahan, chose Ms. Barber for the job in December.

Mr. Issa said Thursday during a congressional hearing that he will ask for Ms. Papoi to be reinstated because he believes she was “demoted in violation of the spirit” of the whistle-blower law.

The department responded to Mr. Issa‘s complaints in a letter that listed what it said were 11 factual inaccuracies by Mr. Issa and complained about “unfounded allegations of bad faith and a breach of legal ethics.”

“The department has not taken any retaliatory action against employees that have provided information to your committee,” Assistant Secretary Nelson Peacock wrote.

Mr. Issa disclosed in his letter that Ms. Papoi complained confidentially to the inspector general in March 2010 that the department, under a directive signed by Ms. Callahan, had illegally sidetracked hundreds of requests from journalists, watchdog groups and others for federal records to top political advisers. The advisers wanted information about those requesting the materials.

In some cases, the release of documents considered politically sensitive was delayed, according to more than 1,000 pages of e-mails subsequently obtained by the AP, which wrote about the practice last summer.

Story Continues →