The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is one of those small corners of the government with an important mission: It's supposed to help protect federal whistle-blowers and shield civil service workers from politics.
But during the Bush years, the office was engulfed in scandal. It was raided by FBI agents, and its chief was indicted for obstructing justice.
It's into that unsettled environment that the new leader, Carolyn Lerner, arrived five months ago. And good government groups say she's already taking the office in new directions.
It wasn't too long ago, employment lawyers say, that when federal employees came to them with concerns that their bosses were breaking the law, they'd do anything to avoid the Office of Special Counsel.
No more, says whistle-blower advocate Tom Devine.
"The agency has switched from being poison ivy for whistle-blowers to being the first option for organizations like ours that are always looking for the best way to defend people who commit the truth," says Devine, the legal director at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that helps government and private sector workers.
The new special counsel, Carolyn Lerner, tells NPR in an interview that she'd like to get the word out so she can help a lot more federal employees.
"We need to make sure people know this agency exists," Lerner says. "I think it may be one of the best-kept secrets in government."
Secret No More
If Lerner keeps up her recent pace, the office may not remain secret for much longer. She went public earlier this month with a report critical of personnel decisions by the Air Force. Lerner raised questions about whether the Air Force had inadequately disciplined managers at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where three whistle-blowers reported that remains of dead American service members had been mishandled.
"Because we're independent, we really can be an objective source for reviewing what the agency's internal investigations uncover and pointing out problems with those investigations," Lerner says. "If there are still questions that remain, we can raise them."
Debra Katz, a Washington employment lawyer who's followed the office for decades, took note.
"By taking the position that she did, and making it clear she was not going to be a wallflower or someone who could just be walked over, but she would go toe-to-toe with the Air Force, she sent a very strong message that whistle-blowers would be protected," Katz says.
Mostly, Lerner has let her actions do the talking by intervening in court cases to protect whistle-blowers.
That's what happened earlier this year when the military moved to cut off the salary of analyst Franz Gayl after Gayl said the Marines took too long to get mine resistant vehicles to troops in Iraq. It's a delay that he says probably cost some service members their lives.
Lerner's intervention helped the whistle-blower settle his case. He was to return to work this week.
Not everyone, or even most people, are so fortunate, Katz says.
"Unless you protect people who are brave and come forward, and they're conscientious, and they risk their careers to do what is right to protect the public health and safety, then you will not have people coming forward — and we all suffer, and there could be really catastrophic results," Katz says.
Lerner has made some bold moves outside of the courtroom, too. Her office enforces the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that tries to keep politics out of the federal workplace. But Lerner says the law is outdated, and she wants Congress to fix it.
"Right now, the Hatch Act prohibits anyone who works in state or local government from running for partisan political office if their job involves any federal funds," Lerner says. "So for example, a police officer in Pennsylvania who worked in the K-9 unit and had a dog that was paid for through federal funds couldn't run for school board."
Lerner says she's uncomfortable enforcing a law that punishes people who want to serve their local communities — often, for little or no extra money.
It's just not fair, she says, and that's not what she joined the government to do.