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."
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, listed on the DHS website as a 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.
Issa sent a five-page letter, obtained by The Associated Press, to the department late Wednesday, describing his concerns about Papoi's employment. It did not ask Napolitano to reinstate her.
"Denying or interfering with employees' rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law," Issa wrote. "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 is on leave.