E.D. Civil-Rights Employees Will Face Security Investigations
Washington--The federal government's civil-service agency has begun investigating more than half of the Education Department's civil-rights workers, over the objections of the department's civil-rights chief and the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights.
According to a spokesman for the agency, the Office of Personnel Management, the investigation of equal-opportunity specialists and lawyers in the department's civil-rights office is required by a 30-year-old Presidential order designed to protect government secrets.
Executive Order 10405, which was signed by President Eisenhower in 1953, states that "the interests of national security" require that all federal employees "shall be reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States." Regulations promulgated under the order require the personnel-management office to investigate employees holding "critical sensitive" positions.
According to the personnel-management office, the government's decision to go ahead with the security checks at this time stems from a general study of the department's personnel policies that was initiated during the Carter Administration. At least one person who held a top-level post in the department during those years, however, said last week that she had never heard of the study.
Approximately 670 of the civil-rights office's 1,023 workers will be fingerprinted and their former employers, neighbors, and associates will be questioned at length as part of the security initiative. The cost of the investigations, estimated at $1 million, will be paid out of the office's $44-million budget, according to Harry M. Singleton, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights.
The personnel agency plans to investigate a total of 1,400--or almost one-third--of the department's employees, the spokesman added. Most of the investigations will focus on employees in the office for civil rights and office of the inspector general.
"In my 20 years in Congess, I have never heard of a request for security investigations of persons employed by federal civil-rights units," said Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California and chairman of the House panel, in a strongly worded letter delivered to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell late last month.
"Security investigations of civil-rights employees raise suspicions as to the integrity and commitment of the Department of Education and this Administration to vigorous civil-rights enforcement," he added.
"That's just hogwash," Mr. Singleton of the department's civil-rights office said last week in response to Representative Edwards' allega-tions. "This will have as chilling an effect on civil-rights enforcement as the man in the moon."
Mr. Singleton said he is nonetheless opposed to the investigations on several grounds. "First, there's the cost factor," he said. "This is going to come out of our budget. Second, there's the question of how it is that my employees are involved in national-security matters. Finally, there's the question of the privacy rights of my employees."
Mr. Singleton said that in June 1982 he sent a memorandum to James B. Thomas, the department's inspector general, raising these objections.
The inspector general is responsible for the department's personnel-security program.
Mr. Thomas, however, responded that, according to current regulations, the investigations would have to take place. Thus, Mr. Singleton said that he had no choice but to allow the federal investigators in.
According to Patrick Korten, a spokesman for the personnel agency, the government began looking at the problem of national-security risks in the department shortly after it was created in 1980.
"[Former Secretary of Education Shirley M.] Hufstedler asked our office early on to help get the security program in her department underway," Mr. Korten said. "We sent a team over to assess their situation and provided them with a report. Then last September we sent a letter to the inspector general's office let-ting them know who would have to be investigated."
"These investigations are not unique to the department," Mr. Korten added. "It's all done to conform with guidelines that have been around for a long time. [The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] was rather lax about complying with the rules. This was just an effort to get the new department off on the right foot."
Spokesmen for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--government agencies that also have a large number of employees who would fit the "critical sensitive" designation--said last week that the government does not require their employees to submit to security investigations.
In addition, Cynthia G. Brown, who ran the department's civil-rights office during the Carter Administration, said in an interview last week that she "had never even thought about national-security risks in the department" during her tenure in office.
"If this was initiated by Ms. Hufstedtler, I didn't know about it," Ms. Brown said. "I met with the Secretary frequently and cannot recall her ever inquiring about security problems in my office. And I never knew her not to tell me about her plans for" the civil-rights office.
"I don't know why they might be doing this at this time, other than for purposes of harrassment," she said.