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A blind eye to discrimination: Scott Bloch, the Bush appointee who tried to ditch protections for gay federal employees, has a new scandal on his hands: a gay whistle-blower Bloch's office tried to sweep under the carpet.

For 32 years Michael Levine considered himself lucky. The gay radio systems manager worked for the U.S. Forest Service at the Inyo National Forest in picturesque Bishop, Calif., not far from Yosemite National Park. Levine, now 65, was able to use his technical expertise in a locale that nourished his love of the outdoors. He was a model employee with a blemish-free record.

But his professional life started to fall apart two years ago after he blew the whistle on a coworker, who was running a private sporting goods business from the work site, and on their mutual supervisor, who had turned a blind eye. That's when the retaliation began: Levine was falsely accused of having child pornography on his computer, had his computer seized, was suspended for 14 days, and was referred to as a "fucking faggot" by the personnel officer who filed the charges against him.

Having nowhere else to turn, he contacted the government agency charged with protecting federal whistle-blowers and with enforcing antidiscrimination rules: the Office of Special Counsel. That's also the office headed by Bush appointee Scott Bloch, who came under fire in February 2004 after he scrubbed all references to sexual orientation-based discrimination from the OSC's Web site. After taking no action in the case for over a year, the OSC unceremoniously closed Levine's whistle-blower retaliation case as well as his antigay discrimination case on January 27. Bitch's office failed to return Levine's many phone calls and recommended no further action on either complaint. Observes Levine: "When even the watchdog agency is corrupt, there's no hope for anybody."

Levine's case was the last straw for many federal watchdogs who have been frustrated and angry with the way the OSC now works under Bloch, the former deputy director and counsel to the Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Justice. The national gay rights group Human Rights Campaign joined with other organizations--including the Government Accountability Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility--to file an official complaint against Bloch on March 3. The complaint details malfeasance, including arbitrary and illegal personnel practices, cronyism, and employee "gag orders," and it calls for an independent investigation of Bloch's office.

Within a week a bipartisan group of senators--Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio along with Democrats Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii--sent a letter to Bloch asking him to respond to some of the complaint's allegations. Voinovich, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce, reportedly plans to hold a hearing on the OSC.

Bloch's continuing stonewalling in response to complaints of antigay discrimination signals a profound change in a federal executive branch policy that has endorsed nondiscrimination since 1978, according to Elaine Kaplan, a Clinton appointee who headed the OSC from 1998 until 2003. In fact, it was Kaplan who explicitly added the reference to sexual orientation--based discrimination to the OSC's mandate. "I was just getting the OSC in line with the rest of the executive branch," explains Kaplan, who is associated with the law firm of Bernabei & Katz, which is representing an unnamed OSC employee in the complaint.

Publicly, even President Bush seems to agree with Kaplan. After Bloch erased sexual orientation from the OSC Web site, the White House issued a statement noting that "longstanding federal policy prohibits discrimination against federal employees based on sexual orientation. President Bush expects federal agencies to enforce this policy."

In response, Bloch released a cryptic policy statement that left observers with more questions--without reposting references to sexual orientation on the OSC Web site. In fact, Bloch has yet to respond to five members of Congress, including Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who wrote to him last year seeking clarification. They sent a second letter on March 3, again asking: "If an agency of the federal government discriminates against an individual based on his or her sexual orientation, does that violate the law and does that individual have any recourse through your office?"

Still no answer. That's "deeply troubling" to HRC public policy advocate Praveen Fernandes. "We are hoping for a clear restatement in a public forum, including the OSC's Web site, that sexual orientation--based discrimination is prohibited in the federal workforce."

Michael Levine is now retired from the U.S. Forest Service and still lives in California. He doesn't feel so lucky anymore. "Now I'm spending my time helping to get rid of Bloch," he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: Fire gays! Get federal funding.

President Bush may say he's opposed to federal employment discrimination against gays, but he's A-OK with federal money going to "faith-based" groups that discriminate. At press time, the House had passed his federal job training plan, which permits funded groups to fire or refuse to hire GLBT people, based on religious beliefs. The vote was 224-200; the measure's fate in the Senate was uncertain.

A White House statement spun the bill's endorsement of antigay discrimination as allowing a group to maintain "its religious identity and mission." Democratic representative Bobby Scott of Virginia told the Associated Press that the bill would "shift the weight of the federal government from supporting the victim of discrimination to supporting some so-called right to discriminate with federal funds. That is a profound change in civil rights protection."

Kuhr is editor at large of the Boston-based In Newsweekly.
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Title Annotation:Politics; George W. Bush
Author:Kuhr, Fred
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 12, 2005
Previous Article:Under the radar.
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