WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department demoted a senior career employee who confidentially complained to the inspector general that political appointees were improperly interfering with requests for federal records by journalists and watchdog groups.
The new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigating those practices told the Obama administration that the decision "appeared to be an act of retaliation" and warned, "Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime." The department responded that it had done nothing wrong.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to remind employees about their rights and whistleblower protections and "make DHS managers aware of the consequences for retaliation against witnesses who furnish information to Congress."
Issa accused the administration of improperly demoting Catherine Papoi, the former deputy unit chief in charge of the Freedom of Information Act. It escalated the political drama over a broad congressional inquiry into President Barack Obama's promises to improve government transparency.
"Denying or interfering with employees' rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law," Issa wrote in a five-page letter 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 Homeland Security Department said Papoi was not technically demoted because she never lost pay or benefits, although Papoi's new boss, Delores J. Barber, took over her title as deputy chief FOIA officer and moved into Papoi's office. As a GS-15 federal worker, 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.
Papoi, who applied for the newly created Senior Executive Service position ultimately awarded to Barber, is on leave. The department said a panel of career and political employees chose Barber on her merits over Papoi. Issa did not ask Napolitano to reinstate Papoi.
The department responded in a letter that listed what it said were 11 factual inaccuracies by 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," wrote Assistant Secretary Nelson Peacock.
Issa disclosed in his letter that Papoi complained confidentially to the inspector general in March 2010 that the Homeland Security Department had illegally sidetracked hundreds of requests from journalists, watchdog groups and others for federal records to top political advisers, who wanted information about those requesting the materials.
In some cases the release of documents considered politically sensitive was delayed, according to more than 1,000 pages of e-mails subsequently obtained by the AP, which wrote about the practice last summer. The e-mails did not show political appointees stopping records from coming out, but they illustrated acute political sensitivities that slowed the process. Career employees were ordered to provide political staff with information about the people who asked for records — such as where they lived and whether they were private citizens or reporters — and about the organizations where they worked. If a member of Congress sought documents, employees were told to specify Democrat or Republican.
The AP reported that the DHS inspector general's office had conducted interviews to determine whether political advisers acted improperly, but its findings have not been made public nearly one year after Papoi's complaints.
"I knew full well I could be jeopardizing my career, but I have to be able to sleep at night," Papoi told the AP in an interview late Wednesday.
Peacock, the assistant Homeland Security secretary, said the agency was not aware until Issa's disclosure that Papoi was the one who had complained about her bosses to the inspector general in March 2010. Papoi accused political appointees of "breaking the law by knowingly and intentionally delaying and obstructing the release of agency records" under the Freedom of Information Act.
"It is not the practice of (the) OIG to reveal the sources of information that may lead to an inspection," Peacock wrote. "It was your correspondence ... that revealed this claim."
Earlier this week, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said, "It would seem obvious that the political vetting process at the Department of Homeland Security that was uncovered by AP violates both the president's and the attorney general's orders."
Grassley said he has asked inspectors general at dozens of executive branch agencies to investigate whether other parts of the administration are conducting similar political reviews of federal information requests.
A senior Justice Department official in charge of Obama's openness policy, Melanie Pustay, told senators on Tuesday, "Certainly if the statements in the (AP) article are true, it would be very serious, and we would have very serious concerns with that."
She said Justice Department rules make clear that the identity of the person requesting records shouldn't affect whether the government provides information. She acknowledged that political appointees in the Justice Department are told about information requests "for awareness and management purposes, and that's all."
Issa said administration lawyers also believe Papoi has been secretly providing information to congressional investigators, who interviewed Papoi with her private lawyer on March 3. In the interview, Papoi criticized political appointees in Napolitano's office. The Homeland Security Department said Papoi was notified about her new boss' hiring on Jan. 10, the same week in which Issa has separately acknowledged that his investigators began obtaining materials that raised new questions about the agency's political reviews.
Peacock said the department lawyer "merely pointed out the chronology ... regarding the hiring process and the investigation."
Issa said Papoi was told on March 4, the day after meeting with investigators, that Barber would begin as her new boss on Monday this week and that she needed to vacate her office before March 10.
"By notifying Ms. Papoi of her less desirable office assignment and diminished job responsibilities the day after she appeared before the committee, the department created the appearance of retaliation against a witness," Issa wrote. "The department's decision to marginalize the FOIA Office's most senior career official after two years of record performance is hard to countenance."
The department said Papoi's previous boss was, in fact, the most senior career official in the FOIA unit.
The AP obtained Issa's letter during Sunshine Week, when U.S. news organizations promote open government and freedom of information, and on the eve of a congressional hearing by Issa's committee about government transparency.