OSC targets Hatch Act violations at IRS, improper hiring at CBP

Wednesday - 4/9/2014, 3:45pm EDT

A customer service representative at the IRS who repeatedly greeted taxpayers calling a help-line with a chant urging President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012 could now be facing significant disciplinary action, according to the Office of Special Counsel.

OSC, which enforces the law prohibiting federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity in the workplace — the Hatch Act — has filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board seeking disciplinary action against the employee.

It's one of three cases of improper political activity at the agency recently uncovered by OSC, according to a April 9 press release.

Under a settlement agreement with OSC, another IRS employee, a tax-advisory specialist in Kentucky, will serve a 14-day suspension for promoting partisan political views to a taxpayer she assisted during the 2012 Presidential campaign season. According to a recorded conversation received by OSC, the IRS employee told the taxpayer she supported Democrats and that "Republicans already (sic) trying to cap my pension and ... they're going to take women back 40 years."

Later, the employee told the caller, "I'm not supposed to voice my opinion, so you didn't hear me saying that."

OSC said the employee had been briefed by her supervisor about the Hatch Act just a few weeks prior.

The watchdog agency also received complaints that partisan activity — such as employees wearing pro-Obama political stickers and clothing, and even downloading pro-Obama screensavers on their work computers — was commonplace at a Taxpayer Assistance Center in Dallas, Texas. OSC said it couldn't determine whether the alleged activity took place before the election, but issued cautionary guidance to all employees working in the center.

OSC alleges improper hiring practices at CBP

Meanwhile, three career officials at Customs and Border Protection are under fire by OSC for allegedly manipulating the hiring process at the agency to install three job candidates into career appointments because they were favored by then- CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin.

Bersin, who previously served as former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's top assistant for border security, was appointed to head CBP in 2010. He sought to hire three people from his prior role, who had also worked on the 2008 campaign to elect Obama, according to OSC's complaint.

However, there were no open slots for political appointees at the time. CBP HR officials then "willfully engaged in improper tactics" to manipulate the hiring process in order to appoint the three political appointees to competitive career positions, OSC alleges — a practice known as "political burrowing."

The DHS chief human capital officer ultimately nixed the attempt to hire the political appointees and, later, the Office of Personnel Management also overrode a second attempt to hire one of the candidates.

OSC's complaint, which still must be investigated by MSPB, names the agency's former deputy assistant commissioner of human resources management and two other senior HR officials but does not allege that Bersin, himself, engaged in misconduct. Bersin is now the assistant secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer at DHS.

"Human resources officials are on the front lines when it comes to upholding our merit system and preventing improper political burrowing into the career civil service," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. "They should be the last people violating civil service rules."

The case represents the first time in 30 years that the agency has lodged a complaint against management officials for political discrimination, thanks in large part to expanded authority granted OSC by the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

In her statement, Lerner said the law has allowed OSC to be a "better defender" of the government's merit system.

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