- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

A leading House Republican warned the Obama administration Thursday about demoting a federal worker who complained to her agency’s internal watchdog that political appointees were interfering with records requests by journalists and others.

Republican Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the demotion at the Department of Homeland Security “appeared to be an act of retaliation.” The committee is investigating the political reviews of records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime,” said California’s Mr. Issa.

The department said it had done nothing wrong.

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

Mr. Issa 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.

The lawmaker said he will ask that Miss Papoi be reinstated because he believes she was “demoted in violation of the spirit” of the whistleblower law.

“Denying or interfering with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law,” Mr. Issa wrote in a five-page letter to Miss Napolitano that was 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 Miss Papoi was not technically demoted because she never lost pay or benefits. Yet Miss Papoi’s new boss, Delores J. Barber, took over Miss Papoi’s title and moved into Miss Papoi’s office. Miss 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.

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

The department cited 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 said.

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