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.
The e-mails did not show political appointees stopping records from coming out, but they did show acute political sensitivities that slowed the process.
Career employees were ordered to provide political staff with information about the people who asked for records — such as where they lived and whether they were private citizens or reporters — and about the organizations where they worked. If a member of Congress sought documents, employees were told to specify Democrat or Republican.
The AP reported that the inspector general's office had conducted interviews to determine whether political advisers acted improperly, but its findings have not been made public nearly one year after Ms. Papoi's complaints.
"I knew full well I could be jeopardizing my career, but I have to be able to sleep at night," Ms. Papoi told the AP in an interview.
Mr. Peacock, the assistant secretary, said the agency was not aware until Mr. Issa's disclosure that Ms. Papoi was the one who had complained about her bosses to the inspector general in March 2010. Ms. Papoi accused political appointees of "breaking the law by knowingly and intentionally delaying and obstructing the release of agency records" under the Freedom of Information Act.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said, "It would seem obvious that the political vetting process at the Department of Homeland Security that was uncovered by AP violates both the president's and the attorney general's orders."
Mr. Grassley said he has asked inspectors general at dozens of executive branch agencies to investigate whether other parts of the administration are conducting similar political reviews of federal information requests.
A senior Justice Department official in charge of Mr. Obama's openness policy, Melanie Pustay, told senators on Tuesday that "if the statements in the (AP) article are true, it would be very serious, and we would have very serious concerns with that."
She said Justice Department rules make clear that the identity of the person requesting records shouldn't affect whether the government provides information. She acknowledged that political appointees in the Justice Department are told about information requests "for awareness and management purposes, and that's all."
Mr. Issa said administration lawyers also believe Ms. Papoi has been secretly providing information to congressional investigators, who interviewed Ms. Papoi with her private lawyer on March 3.
In the interview, Ms. Papoi criticized political appointees in Ms. Napolitano's office.
The department said Ms. Papoi was notified about her new boss's hiring on Jan. 10, the same week in which Mr. Issa has acknowledged his investigators began obtaining materials that raised new questions about the agency's political reviews.
Mr. Peacock said the department lawyer "merely pointed out the chronology ... regarding the hiring process and the investigation."
Mr. Issa said Ms. Papoi was told on March 4, the day after meeting with investigators, that Ms. Barber would begin as her new boss on Monday this week and that she needed to vacate her office before March 10.
"By notifying Ms. Papoi of her less desirable office assignment and diminished job responsibilities the day after she appeared before the committee, the department created the appearance of retaliation against a witness," Mr. Issa wrote. "The department's decision to marginalize the FOIA Office's most senior career official after two years of record performance is hard to countenance."
The department said Ms. Papoi's previous boss was, in fact, the most senior career official in the FOIA unit.
The AP obtained Mr. Issa's letter during Sunshine Week, when U.S. news organizations promote open government and freedom of information.