House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., was too diplomatic Thursday in saying the Obama administration's treatment of a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower “appeared to be an act of retaliation.” In fact, the way several of President Obama's political appointees at DHS treated a senior career civil servant who blew the whistle on them is a classic illustration of an all-too-familiar Washington story. That this is happening under Obama is yet more proof that business as usual in government is moving apace in his administration.
Catherine Papoi was the deputy unit chief for the DHS office that processed Freedom of Information Act requests. She told the DHS inspector general that Obama's political appointees were improperly interfering with the agency's FOIA response process, including those submitted by journalists and members of Congress. Not long afterward, Papoi found herself out of a job. She was still being paid at her old rate, but her title and office were taken by somebody else who was approved by one of the political appointees who Papoi claimed interfered with the department's FOIA responses. DHS officials denied retaliating against Papoi and cited as proof the fact that her grade and pay were unchanged. But that's the way Washington tames career employees who buck the political types — the troublemaker is left with no official duties and is marginalized in every way possible in the bureaucratic equivalent of a rubber-hose beating.
Issa was less diplomatic in pointing out that “denying or interfering with employees' rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law.” In a five-page letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano that was obtained by the Associated Press, Issa said “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.” He has started an official investigation of the Papoi scandal.
On his first day in office, Obama declared that “a democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” This week happens to be Sunshine Week, which commemorates the FOIA, and Obama's spokesman used the occasion to claim that thisadministration has been “the most open” ever. Yet Obama administration officials have interfered with or otherwise stonewalled FOIA requests on politically sensitive topics such as Guantanamo Bay detainees and illegal immigrants. A recent Knight Foundation survey found that only 13 of the 90 major federal departments and agencies it reviewed have changed their FOIA processes significantly since Obama took office. Obama's Office of Management and Budget even redacted an e-mail exchange between federal employees who were discussing how to apply the administration's own Open Government Initiative.