- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Office of Special Counsel is investigating the involuntary transfer of a top official at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who reported suspected “gross negligence and mishandling” of more than 600 certificates of citizenship and naturalization.

The office, established in the 1970s to protect whistleblowers and shield federal employees against improper management pressures, is expected to issue a report in the matter shortly. A 45-day emergency stay that the agency won in the case expires Friday.

Maria Aran, the immigration service’s chief of staff in Miami, had been reassigned as a supervisory adjudications officer in Tampa, Fla., after reporting that hundreds of certificates of citizenship and naturalization had been voided without due cause, were unaccounted for, had not been verified as issued, were issued as duplicates, or were routinely left unsecured.

Ms. Aran had been given 10 days to accept the move or be terminated. The delay, ordered by Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) after a hearing, put that order on hold while OSC completed its investigation, continued settlement negotiations and determined what further action was warranted.

The board also ordered USCIS to return Ms. Aran to her duties as chief of staff, saying there were “reasonable grounds to believe” she was reassigned “because of her protected disclosures.” OSC had ruled that Ms. Aran’s disclosures were protected “because a disinterested observer would have a reasonable basis to believe that they evidenced gross mismanagement and a danger to public health and safety.”

According to OSC documents, Ms. Aran was reassigned after becoming aware of “substantial immigration irregularities” in the Miami region, which she reported in an e-mail to the USCIS office of security and integrity. A copy of the e-mail also went to 300 OSI agents nationwide, including Ms. Aran’s supervisor, Linda Swacina.

The documents said Ms. Swacina later confronted and criticized Ms. Aran’s decision to communicate with OSI directly.

USCIS spokesman Chris Bentley in Washington denied that Ms. Aran was subject to retaliation, saying her proposed move “had no relation to the issue of recordkeeping practices or the employee’s report related to them.”

Mr. Bentley said six months after Ms. Aran reported the problem — “of which USCIS was already aware” — the agency proposed her transfer to Tampa, where she would head the office and supervise all personnel. He said the move was lateral in grade and many would view it as a promotion, given the substantially increased leadership role.

He also disputed whether Ms. Aran was a whistleblower.

“USCIS was aware of the recordkeeping practice issues about two months before the employee reported them,” he said. “In fact, USCIS began to institute record keeping improvements before the employee reported the problem, and the employee reported the problem to the office that already was aware of and fixing the problem.”

He also denied that the agency’s naturalization certificates were lost in the Miami district office. He said improvements were needed in the office’s record-keeping practices, but said those improvements have been instituted.

USCIS, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security, oversees lawful immigration to the United States, including granting immigration and citizenship benefits and ensuring the integrity of the nation’s immigration system.

The MSPB is an independent, bipartisan agency tasked with upholding the merit systems under which federal employees work. Its mission is to protect federal merit systems and the rights of people within those systems. It is where whistleblowers who suffer retaliation can seek redress.

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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