September 19, 2003
By Amelia Gruber
The Office of Special Counsel has not acted quickly enough to address a substantial backlog in whistleblower cases, a lawmaker claimed this week.
OSC, responsible for reviewing whistleblower disclosures and referring them for further investigation, is faced with a rapidly increasing pileup of cases, according to statistics released in mid-July by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington-based advocacy group.
The data obtained by PEER indicates that OSC had a backlog of 628 whistleblower cases awaiting review at the beginning of June. Of those cases, more than 70 percent, or 448, were at least six months old. Thirteen percent, or 82 cases, were three to six months old. The statistics are based on internal OSC documents, according to PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.
The current backlog of whistleblower cases is more than double the number of those that were pending at OSC at the end of fiscal 2001. That year, the agency left 245 whistleblower cases unresolved, according to its annual report to Congress. In comparison, 534 cases remained open at the end of fiscal 2002.
In a Sept. 16 letter to Acting Special Counsel William Reukauf, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he is worried that OSC "appears to have no formal action plan to address the backlog issue, other than hoping that [its] budget request for more funding and staff resources comes through."
Grassley added that he is concerned OSC will not get to 31 cases involving dangers to public health or safety quickly enough. "In this post-Sept. 11 world, it may be necessary to elevate the status of and allocation of funds to OSC's disclosures unit, so that disclosures involving danger to national security are reviewed immediately and certainly before the statutory deadline," he said.
Grassley asked OSC to reply to his letter by Oct. 6.
"We will be responding to Grassley's letter as he requested and will be assuring him, among other things, that any disclosures identified by OSC as involving a danger to national security will continue to be given immediate attention as they have been in the past," Reukauf said in response.
Benefits of Home Schooling
The Merit Systems Protection Board has intervened to prevent the Office of Personnel Management from denying survivor annuity benefits to the son of a deceased civil servant after his 18th birthday.
The son received $1,368 over a four-month period after his birthday. But the fifth month after he turned 18, the Office of Personnel Management asked for the money back, claiming that he was too old for benefits.
Federal law allows unmarried dependent children of deceased civil servants to collect survivor payments until they turn 18. After that, they can retain benefits as long as they are enrolled in full-time courses at a high school, trade school, technical or vocational institute, junior college, college, university, or "comparable recognized educational institution."
In this case, the son of the deceased federal employee was still finishing high school after his 18th birthday, but was studying at home. When he filed a complaint with OPM claiming that he was entitled to four months of benefits after he turned 18 because he was in school full time, the personnel agency claimed that home schooling did not qualify him for the extended benefits.
The law allowing benefits after age 18 only applies to students "in residence" at a high school, OPM said. But in a Sept. 9 decision, the Merit Systems Protection Board overturned this ruling.
Even though the son spent much of his time studying at home, he was enrolled in a program affiliated with a fully accredited high school in Sonoma County, Calif., MSPB said. Students in the program met at school once a week to receive assignments and speak with teachers, but they attended classes and worked on their assignments at home.
According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, "in residence" means "being officially associated with an organization in a specified capacity," the board said. Since the son was in full-time classes affiliated with a high school, he qualified for the extension of benefits past his 18th birthday, MSPB reasoned.
"Public high school students generally do not reside on school grounds, and even full-time students enrolled in a more typical high school program generally spend a considerable amount of their education-related time studying outside the school building," the board added.
Julie A. Seth-Morris v. Office of Personnel Management, Merit Systems Protection Board (SF-831M-00-0557-I-1), Sept. 9, 2003