Federal File: Lawsuit protection; Gag order

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u An effort to collect from student-loan defaulters by withholding their tax refunds has returned millions of dollars to the Treasury, according to Education Department officials. But it has also spawned a spate of lawsuits against department employees.

Irate defaulters constitute the largest group of people who have suits pending against ed workers, said Ted Skye, a department lawyer.

Officials say they don't know exactly how many such suits have been filed. But the department was concerned enough to draft regulations that allow--but do not require--it to shield its employees from individual liability when they are sued for something they did in their official capacity. The rules, published last month, also allow the department to use federal funds to settle claims against employees.

Mr. Skye said the other major source of litigation is personnel disputes. But he and Steven Y. Winnick, an acting deputy general counsel, said suits have also been filed against individuals by organizations whose federal aid was frozen until they comply with grant restrictions, and institutions protesting the removal of surplus federal property that the department claims was not being used for the allowed purpose.

Another set of new rules allows the department to discipline, or even fire, employees who violate its official policy on the release of information.

That policy currently requires them to seek permission from public-affairs officials before speaking to reporters, the public, or Congressional aides.

Does this amount to a gag order?

"I drafted those regulations, and I certainly didn't intend it as having that effect," said Mr. Winnick, who noted that disclosure of information covered by whistleblower-protection statutes and laws requiring the provision of certain data to the Congress is exempted.

The regulations also clarify the circumstances under which employees can accept gifts and free meals and add a section forbidding them to use illegal drugs on or off the job.

Mr. Winnick said the latter provisions were inspired by President Reagan's executive order requiring a drug-free federal workplace--the same order that mandated drug testing.

A worker would not have to be convicted to lose his job for drug use under the regulations, Mr. Winnick said, but a supervisor would have to meet "the evidentiary standards for personnel action."

The main purpose of the new rules is to clarify a much longer, unwieldy set of regulations dating from the early 1970's, he said.--jm

Vol. 08, Issue 27

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