OOC Requests Stronger Tools for General Counsel

Posted January 23, 2007 at 6:42pm

After a year in which the Office of Compliance general counsel made headlines by challenging the Architect of the Capitol on worker safety issues, the agency now is asking Congress to expand the pallet of enforcement tools available to its chief inspector to better protect legislative branch employees.

The OOC board of directors told Congress in a report issued earlier this month that its general counsel’s lack of authority to issue temporary restraining orders and investigative subpoenas, as well as to protect whistleblowers adequately from retaliation, is a “vital and immediate concern” when it comes to enforcing the Congressional Accountability Act.

Congress’ other major shortcoming in following through with the landmark 1995 law, which applied 11 federal workplace and antidiscrimination laws to the legislative branch for the first time, is demonstrated in how far it has fallen behind the executive branch in enacting regulations for military personnel entering and returning to federal service, the OOC said.

The report, submitted to House and Senate leadership officials as well as the various committees that oversee the OOC, is required by law to be completed biennially in an effort to ensure the goals of the CAA are not eroded over time.

On Tuesday, the 12th anniversary of the creation of the OOC, Alma Candelaria, the office’s deputy executive director for the House, explained that this year’s report was formatted a bit differently than past reports in an effort to target the two biggest challenges the OOC is facing today.

“Obviously we would want all our recommendations to be adopted, but given everybody’s timeframe the ones that we’ve highlighted in this report, we’re hopeful that we can see some action on them in the 110th Congress,” she said.

General Counsel Pete Eveleth explained that the board’s recommendations concerning his enforcement powers are less about expanding his authority and more about giving him the same ability to do his job as his counterparts in the executive branch.

Take the issuance of investigatory subpoenas, for example. If the OOC — which is responsible for ensuring the safety and health of legislative branch employees through the enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Act — is to do its job, it needs access to documents in a timely manner so that it can conduct efficient and effective inspections, he said.

“If people are slow in giving us information, that means possibly the hazard is still there and possibly it’s getting worse,” Eveleth said. “Sometimes it has been our experience that there’s been a great deal of delay and resistance in providing the documents we need in order to even determine whether there’s a violation or not.”

Expanding his powers would mean that he would be able to obtain the documents that he needs as part of his investigation in the same manner that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board and a host of other agencies get them, he said.

“Absent that authority we are sort of put in a hard place,” he said.

In its report, the OOC board of directors said that giving the general counsel the ability to seek a temporary restraining order in federal District Court for enforcement purposes and granting legislative branch employees whistleblower protections in the same manner as executive branch employees would go a long way toward ensuring equal enforcement between the two branches.

One case in which Eveleth said it would have been useful to have had such expanded authorities was his agency’s investigation of the Architect of the Capitol’s office for allowing health and safety hazards to exist for years in the utility tunnel system that runs beneath Capitol Hill.

That case became a much-publicized issue in 2006 after Eveleth took the unprecedented step of filing a formal complaint against the AOC and continued to make news after tunnel shop crew members claimed that Architect Alan Hantman was retaliating against them for reaching out to Members of Congress for help in making their workplace safer.

The board of directors also argued in its report this month that to further the goals of the CAA, Congress has enacted laws to ensure that military service will not prevent individuals from remaining professionally competitive with their civilian counterparts. But while regulations for these laws have been implemented in the executive branch, the legislative branch has lagged behind.

The board noted that it is currently engaged in drafting proposed regulations that would implement the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act in the legislative branch and that it intends to present a final report to Congress on what those regulations would be before the end of the 110th Congress. The OOC also intends to begin the process of developing regulations for the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act, the report said.

On Tuesday, the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee praised the OOC report and promised to review the recommended changes for the CAA in her committee.

“The OCC Board has done a good job of furthering the interests of employees to be free of discrimination without compromising the integrity of the organization, including providing Congress with a wish list of what it would like to see the Members do to further its objectives,” Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) wrote in an e-mail. “I look forward to working with them, and to taking this matter up with the Committee in the near future.”