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.
A department spokeswoman, Amy Kudwa, said Issa's letter was "rife with inaccuracies and distorts the facts." She said the agency will continue to cooperate with the congressional investigation.
Issa disclosed in his letter that Papoi complained confidentially to the inspector general in March 2010 that the Homeland Security Department had illegally sidetracked hundreds of requests from journalists, watchdog groups and others for federal records to top political advisers, who wanted information about those requesting the materials.
In some cases the release of documents considered politically sensitive was delayed, according to more than 1,000 pages of e-mails subsequently obtained by the AP, which wrote about the practice last summer. The AP reported that the DHS inspector general's office had conducted interviews to determine whether political advisers acted improperly, but their findings have not been made public nearly one year after Papoi's complaints.
"I knew full well I could be jeopardizing my career, but I have to be able to sleep at night," Papoi told the AP in an interview late Wednesday.
Concerns about the political reviews continue to resonate. Earlier this week, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said, "It would seem obvious that the political vetting process at the Department of Homeland Security that was uncovered by AP violates both the president's and the attorney general's orders."
Grassley said he has asked inspectors general at dozens of executive branch agencies to investigate whether other parts of the administration are conducting similar political reviews of federal information requests.
A senior Justice Department official in charge of openness policy for the administration, Melanie Pustay, told senators on Tuesday, "Certainly if the statements in the (AP) article are true, it would be very serious, and we would have very serious concerns with that."
She said Justice Department rules make clear that the identity of the person requesting records shouldn't affect whether the government provides information. She acknowledged that political appointees in the Justice Department are told about information requests "for awareness and management purposes, and that's all."
Kudwa, the Homeland Security Department spokeswoman, said the agency was not aware until Issa's disclosure that Papoi was the one who had complained about her bosses to the inspector general in March 2010. Papoi accused political appointees of "breaking the law by knowingly and intentionally delaying and obstructing the release of agency records" under the Freedom of Information Act.
Issa said administration lawyers also believe Papoi has been secretly providing information to congressional investigators, who interviewed Papoi with her private lawyer on March 3. In the interview, Papoi criticized political appointees in Napolitano's office. The Homeland Security Department said Papoi was notified about her new boss' hiring on Jan. 10, the same week in which Issa has separately acknowledged that his investigators began obtaining materials that raised new questions about the agency's political reviews.
Issa said Papoi was told on March 4, the day after meeting with investigators, that Barber would begin as her new boss on Monday this week and that she needed to vacate her office before March 10.
"By notifying Ms. Papoi of her less desirable office assignment and diminished job responsibilities the day after she appeared before the committee, the department created the appearance of retaliation against a witness," Issa wrote. "The department's decision to marginalize the FOIA Office's most senior career official after two years of record performance is hard to countenance."
The AP obtained Issa's letter during Sunshine Week, when U.S. news organizations promote open government and freedom of information, and on the eve of a congressional hearing by Issa's committee about government transparency.