The Office of Sternberg Coddling

There is another issue about L’Affaire Sternberg that I think needs to be expounded upon, one that doesn’t seem to have been addressed much at length up to this point. And that is the role of the Office of Special Council (OSC) in releasing their preliminary findings that tried to make a martyr out of Sternberg.

Below the fold I will go into a fair amount of detail about how this came to be.

The Souder report is little more than the OSC findings warmed-over; as far as I can tell the body of the report contains nothing new. The bulk of that report consists of the OSC findings restated and used as a form of evidence in and of themselves. The report even attacks the Smithsonian for not accepting the OSC’s findings at face value. Consider this passage attacking the Smithsonian’s response:

Finally, the Secretary and Deputy Secretary continue to ignore the clear findings of the Office of Special Counsel in its “pre-closure” letter to Dr. Sternberg. The OSC found that Dr. Sternberg’s allegations of discrimination were supported by the evidence uncovered through its preliminary investigation.

And then it continues for another 4 paragraphs about the OSC, never once questioning its veracity, finally concluding…

The Deputy Secretary responded on May 3, 2006, by claiming that the Smithsonian has “conducted an internal inquiry, including a review of OSC’s preliminary findings, and concluded that Dr. von Sternberg is a Research Associate in good standing at NMNH, and that he has the same access to office space, laboratories, collections, libraries and other common facilities as that accorded to other Research Associates.”76 Tellingly, the Deputy Secretary’s statement completely failed to address the central question of whether the harassment and discrimination identified in the OSC report took place. Indeed, from the Deputy Secretary’s non-responsive “response,” one cannot determine whether the Smithsonian’s “internal inquiry” even addressed this issue. [emphasis original]

This passage exemplifies the extreme dishonesty of the report; those things that the Smithsonian inquired about – Sternberg’s office space, access to collections, status as a Research Associate, etc. – were the very things that the alleged harassment and discrimination consisted of. In other words, the Smithsonian investigated the charges made in the OSC report, found them to be without merit, and got on with their business. Outside of those specific charges, there wasn’t any harassment or discrimination to inquire about.

So contrary to the Souder report, the Smithsonian did not ignore the OSC’s preliminary findings – the letters sent by the Secretaries both to Sternberg and the politicians directly address most if not all of its allegations – it’s that they found the report’s claims and hysterical rhetoric completely wrongheaded. What makes the Souder report something more than just a repeat of the OSC is that it contains an appendix with all of the emails and letters that were used as evidence of Sternberg’s supposed persecution. Thanks to these materials, we now know that the Smithsonian was right and the OSC was wrong. The question is, how could this have happened? Since when did the OSC abandon its mission of protecting whistleblowers and instead become a political chop shop?

The answer is, ever since Special Counsel Scott Bloch was put in charge.

A comprehensive review of Bloch’s malfeasance would take up too much time and space. The following links have the full story if you’re interested (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), plus many, many more can be found on Google. I’ll just summarize:

  • Bloch is a far-right wing activist and a notorious homophobe.
  • Upon taking office Bloch immediately removed references to sexual orientation discrimination from the OSC website. Bloch has indicated that he will not protect gays from discrimination in contradiction of White House policy.
  • Bloch is alleged to have used the OSC for partisan political purposes by ignoring claims made against Republicans while vigorously pursuing complaints lodged against Democrats.
  • Bloch doubled the number of political appointees in the OSC, giving high paying salaries to many of his friends and fellow right-wing activists who have no relevant experience. He has simultaneously eviscerated the OSC’s professional staff, much of whom has either been fired for not relocating on short notice or resigned in frustration.
  • James McVay, who wrote the preliminary report concerning Sternberg, is one of Bloch’s more controversial political appointees. He has no experience in employment law, whistleblower law, or federal-sector work.
  • Many hundreds of meritorious cases, which by all accounts should have been investigated, were dismissed without investigation by Bloch’s office. Meanwhile, matters over which OSC has no jurisdiction have been pursued rigorously. (Sound familiar?)
  • According to the OSC’s own polling, Federal employees are extremely dissatisfied with the work being done by the OSC, and effectively no whistleblowers have received relief as a result of the complaints they filed.
  • When complaints were made about Bloch’s behavior and mistreatment of the staff, Bloch not only dismissed the complaints, he allegedly retaliated against the people who made them and issued a gag order preventing the OSC staff from speaking to anyone outside of the agency. Ironically, it is precisely this type of retaliation and intimidation of whistleblowers that the OSC is tasked with investigating.
  • As a result of OSC failing to discharge its duties and taking revenge on aggrieved staff, former staff members and numerous whistleblower protection groups have filed a complaint with the Office of Personnel Management, which has launched an investigation (still on-going, as far as I can tell). Additionally, two Senate committees were forced to hold hearings concerning Bloch’s behavior.

It almost couldn’t get worse. There is a long and sordid history since Bloch took over the OSC of cronyism, political bias, shirking, and unfair treatment of staff. Scott Bloch makes former FEMA director Michael Brown look like a brilliant leader and seasoned professional by comparison.

This explains how the OSC managed to produce an preliminary investigation on the Sternberg affair that is so completely divorced from reality. Put simply, it was a political hatchet job, yet another in a long line of abuses that the OSC has become infamous for. What’s perhaps most telling about all of this is that in spite of having a major backlog in cases, in spite of trying to pare down this backlog by dismissing meritorious cases without investigation, the OSC somehow found the time to investigate a case for which they knew they had no jurisdiction. Amazing, isn’t it? If you are a whistleblower who needs protection, or a gay federal worker who’s been discriminated against, the OSC simply doesn’t have time for you. They’re too busy pursuing cases outside of their jurisdiction in service of the Culture Wars.

Considering that Sternberg should have known that the OSC lacked jurisdiction, it is my belief that the Discovery Institute referred him to Bloch’s office knowing that even though the case was outside the OSC’s purview, even though there were more appropriate venues for handling a legitimate grievance of this kind, Bloch and McVay would dutifully issue a preliminary report that would serve the propaganda purposes of the DI. One even wonders if the DI wrote the report for them.

(Cross-posted to Sunbeams from Cucumbers.)