What legal pitfalls await feds in 2012?

Thursday - 1/12/2012, 12:52pm EST

Bill Bransford, a partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth

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The new year brings possibility of all kinds of change for agencies and employees, including on the legal front. It's an election year, so feds need to be careful what they do and say about politics, and the push continues to expand whistleblower protections, even though the end result is far from certain.

"The biggest change that's already happened, it happened in 2011, was the appointment of Carolyn Lerner as the special counsel," said Bill Bransford, a partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth. "There seems to be a breath of fresh air. The employees are energized that work in the Special Counsel's Office, and I expect to see greater strides ahead in whistleblower protection.

Of even more importance, Bransford told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin, is the apparent bipartisan agreement in Congress that whistleblower protection needs to be improved.

Bill Bransford, a partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth (SB&R photo)

Bransford is optimistic about Congress working out the differences between competing whistleblower bills in the House and the Senate this year, something he says is long overdue. Once the legislation is passed and the President signs it, federal managers are going to have to watch out.

"A lot of federal managers have had a little bit of holiday from having to worry about the oversight of the Office of Special Counsel or seriously having to deal with complaints of whistleblower reprisals," he said. "That's going to change."

With 2012 being an election year, it's also a good time for feds to bone up on the Hatch Act, the law that restricts on-the-job political activities of federal employees. The Office of the Special Counsel, which enforces the law, is a good resource for new employees who have questions about what they can and cannot do in the workplace. Information can be found at OSC.gov.

"For example, you shouldn't come into the office wearing a T-shirt supporting a particular presidential candidate," Bransford said. "One of the more arcane rules is you're allowed to have a bumper sticker on your car if you drive it to work, but if you use that car in the course of the business of the day, you have to cover the bumper sticker."

Bransford added that many federal employees get themselves in trouble by forwarding email concerning political activity, which is not permitted. "You are allowed to participate in political activity off duty," he said. "You are allowed to support candidates."