Wednesday, October 20, 2004

When President Bush’s nominee to head the U.S. Office of Special Counsel took the job earlier this year, he found a disturbing backlog.

In a time of war, when the country was relying heavily on guardsmen and reservists to fight the war on terrorism, the office had failed to adequately prosecute government agencies that discriminated against service members. About 20 claims languished.

“I had read about criticism prior to my arrival in press reports,” Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch said yesterday. “I made it a high priority to prosecute these cases vigorously.”

The OSC is best known within the federal government for protecting whistleblowers from retribution. But in war, the office shields military personnel from federal job discrimination under the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

“The causes range from individual irritation to institutional ignorance of the law, to opposition to service in the military — none of which are acceptable,” Mr. Bloch said.

A Clinton appointee ran the independent office until the five-year term expired in May 2003, more than two years into the Bush presidency. A new Government Accountability Office report on the complaint backlog covered fiscal years 1999 to 2003, a period before Mr. Bloch took office.

As one of his first steps, Mr. Bloch set up a team of lawyers — the Special Projects Unit — to aggressively pursue veterans’ complaints. It is headed by Army National Guardsman James L. Renne, and includes a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant.

“Priorities were not established in this office sufficiently for these kinds of cases,” Mr. Bloch said.

By June, Mr. Bloch became the first special counsel to prosecute a federal agency under USERRA. He filed suit against the U.S. Postal Service for denying employment advancement training because the veteran did weekend National Guard duty. The OSC filed a second lawsuit in August against the Department of Veterans Affairs for firing a worker because, Mr. Bloch said, he was called to active duty. The postal case is ongoing; a confidential settlement is in the works in the second case.

“I will not hesitate to prosecute anyone who discriminates against you or failed to re-employ you or restore your benefits,” is a message that Mr. Bloch delivers to federal workers and on Armed Forces Television Network.

The GAO found that it had taken the OSC an average of 145 days to process a total of 59 USERRA claims referred by the Labor Department between 1999 and 2003. Two cases took 30 months to process.

Congress passed the act in 1994, after veterans returning from the 1991 Persian Gulf war complained of difficulties in returning to their federal jobs. A Justice Department office defends guardsmen and reservists who charge discrimination by local governments or private employers.

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