Justice and Law Enforcement:

U.S. Office of Special Counsel's Procedures for Assigning Incoming Cases to and within Organizational Units

GAO-07-263R: Published: Jan 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Jan 12, 2007.

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The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. Its primary mission is to safeguard the merit system in federal employment by protecting employees and applicants for federal employment from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal from whistleblowing. Individuals who believe that a prohibited personnel practice, such as nepotism or obstruction of the right to compete for employment, has been committed may file complaints with OSC. In addition, the agency operates a secure channel for federal whistleblowing disclosures of violations of law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; abuse of authority; and substantial and specific dangers to public health or safety. OSC's handling of cases has been publicized in the media and concerns were raised about the assignment of two cases that involved alleged violations of the Hatch Act that OSC officials appeared to handle differently from other such cases. This report responds to the request to provide information on OSC's policies and procedures for assigning incoming cases to and within its organizational units.

Under OSC's procedures, the agency receives complaints, matters, disclosures, and requests for opinions through electronic media, by mail, or by fax. These generally come to the Document Control Branch before being sent to one of four units--Complaints Examining, Disclosure, Hatch Act, and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA)--for further review and assignment. For complaints alleging prohibited personnel practices, the Document Control Branch typically screens the information to identify such information as type of complaint and complainant's name and opens a case file before forwarding the case to the Complaints Examining Unit. For disclosure matters that are filed electronically, the Document Control Branch is to open a case file in OSC's data tracking system but is to refer disclosure matters that are received via mail or fax to the Disclosure Unit before creating a case profile. For alleged violations of Hatch Act and requests for opinions on applicability of the act as well as USERRA complaints, OSC procedures call for the Document Control Branch to forward information directly to the respective unit chief who is responsible for reviewing the information, opening a case file, and assigning the case. The Special Counsel, as head of the agency, has authority and discretion to assign cases, but according to OSC, in most cases, the Special Counsel delegates this authority to unit chiefs, who are career staff. Within individual units, specific procedures for assigning cases to individuals vary. Generally, the unit chief makes an initial determination, among other things, as to whether OSC has jurisdiction over the complaint or disclosure and assigns those cases that fall within OSC's jurisdiction to a specific staff member or to a supporting division for review after considering such factors as the nature of the allegation and staff experience and workload. Cases that are outside of OSC's jurisdiction are to be closed with a letter of declination to the complainant.

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