OIG Agents Intended
To Make a Grievant’s Life a Living Hell
Greg Bell, Director
(This article first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
I rarely write about regional arbitration awards, but a case came to my attention recently that should serve as a cautionary tale about OIG agents and the potential danger they pose to postal workers.
According to the parties involved, the case began with a practical joke. A 29-year employee on duty at a small town post office took five dollars that was lying on the desk of an acting supervisor. The supervisor and employee were life-long friends, and many people in the office attested to the fact that pranks and practical jokes were common among employees in the office.
Unfortunately, the five dollars didn’t belong to the 204-B as the employee thought. The money had been placed on the supervisor’s desk by an agent of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The agent was conducting surveillance of the office because the postmaster had complained that for four years, money left around the post office was “coming up missing.”
As soon as the employee took the money, he was confronted by the OIG agent. The employee explained that he took the money as a joke, and gave it to the agent. He was subsequently issued a Notice of Removal.
Following the incident, the employee filed a grievance protesting his dismissal, which was resolved at Step 1 of the grievance procedure. The postmaster and the union agreed that the employee should be allowed to return to work, but without back pay.
Just the Beginning
You might think the story ends there, but that was just the beginning.
Three months after the employee returned to duty, he was summoned to the office of the County Sheriff ’s Department. There he was greeted by two OIG agents as well as the County Sheriff, who served him with an indictment from the county Grand Jury. He was charged with theft of property in violation of the Public Employee Corruption Act, a state statute aimed at state employees. The employee was accused of a Class E Felony and indicted for “theft of property ($5.00).” He was advised to get an attorney, which he did at great expense.
The employee’s attorney prepared a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the indictment was an abuse of power by the OIG. The statute the employee was accused of violating was established to “prevent and/or punish state employees who engaged in corruption and bribe taking.” The county Grand Jury did not have jurisdiction, the lawyer asserted, because the grievant was a federal employee, not an employee of the state.
Before the judge had a chance to rule on the motion, the county District Attorney withdrew the indictment.
While the court case was pending, the employee was placed on administrative leave. He filed a grievance protesting management’s action and seeking to be “made whole” for money he lost, including overtime and night differential, plus attorney’s fees. The grievance (Case #H06C-4H-C 08135990) was appealed to arbitration and heard by Arbitrator Joseph Cannavo, who blasted the OIG for interfering with the grievance-arbitration procedure and for attempting to “criminalize a decent man.”
Arbitrator Slams OIG
“What is really at issue in this grievance,” the arbitrator concluded, “is the integrity of the grievance procedure.”
Arbitrator Cannavo pointed out that the OIG agent assigned to the case testified at the hearing that she was “not happy” that the employee had been reinstated, and claimed that the OIG is “not obligated to comply with any contract or agreement” between the Postal Service and the APWU. “The Postal Service has no control over the OIG,” she added, and “Special Agents report to the Inspector General.”
“Quite frankly,” Cannavo wrote, “the Arbitrator has no concern whatsoever who the OIG reports to … the OIG is an independent agency within, and part of, USPS.”
He noted that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) places obligations on the employer and union to bargain in good faith, which “extends to the everyday monitoring and enforcement of the collective bargaining agreement through the grievance procedure.”
The OIG’s actions interfered with the rights and obligations of parties, the arbitrator ruled, and would have a “chilling effect” on the settlement of grievances. “The actions of the OIG in this case will undoubtedly lead supervisors and Managers to believe that if they settle grievances involving the OIG, perhaps they too will become the subject of an investigation.”
The conduct of the OIG was motivated by malice, the arbitrator concluded. “The OIG Special Agent pursued a path to ‘criminalize’ a decent man and a three-decade employee of the Postal Service with an impeccable record,” he wrote. “By its actions, the OIG sent a message to Management that it will second guess its decisions, even in trivial matters such as this.”
Finally, the arbitrator wrote, “Consequently, it is not unreasonable to assume that the purpose of seeking and serving the indictment was, as stated by the Union, done with malicious intent; and with the desire to make the Grievant’s life a living hell, for however long.”
The arbitrator granted the employee back pay for missed overtime and night differential, but declined to order the Postal Service to pay the employee’s attorney fees.
This case illustrates an important point: If you are confronted by an OIG agent, take the situation very seriously. Many OIG agents are overzealous and reject the idea that they are bound by the contract or grievance settlements. Some, as demonstrated in this case, may act with malicious intent. Some OIG agents will attempt to convince you that you will be granted immunity if you cooperate with their investigation, but they have no such authority.
Know your rights. You have the right to a union representative when questioned by management, a Postal Inspector or an OIG agent. You also have the right to an attorney if criminal activity is suspected. Exercise your rights!