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Park Police chief’s saga is both triumph, warning about honesty in government

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The first great irony in the Teresa Chambers case is that the former and almost certainly future chief of the U.S. Park Police has become one of America’s most successful whistleblowers without ever having intended to blow the whistle in the first place.

The second is that although Chambers’s recent victory in a seven-year legal saga is a triumph for truth in government, the battle also highlighted how hard it is to protect officials who dare to speak openly and plainly to the public.

Chambers – a cheerful, assertive career cop — waged a long, exhausting campaign on the way to last week’s judicial order reinstating her as head of the Park Police. She was ousted in 2004 after she told a Washington Post reporter that her 800-person force needed more money to adequately protect the public.

For three years after that, Chambers and her husband, a retired police officer, worked 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to start building a legal case and a support network. She has personally answered hundreds of thousands of e-mails from backers.

“I used to print them out, but I’ve run out of boxes to keep them in,” Chambers, 53, said in an interview. “I’ve probably lost years of my life as a result of it. The roller coaster, physically, mentally and financially, has been huge,” she said.

Still, she said it was worth it. The outcome validated her original judgment that she had “a duty to tell folks the truth about how taxpayer dollars are being spent.”

Also, she said she’s been moved by the response from supporters. “Folks that I’ve never met are telling me how important it was,” Chambers said. “People say I’ve inspired them to stand up for themselves.”

The case also sends an important message that legal safeguards apply to top officials who expose problems, not just to middle- and low-ranking ones.

“It’s quite significant because a person at Chief Chambers’s level often doesn’t get much of a break” in a conflict with policy, said Richard Condit, senior counsel of the Government Accountability Project.

In theory, the government could appeal the decision to restore her job. However, Chambers said the Interior Department told her Tuesday that it planned to comply in full and to put her back at her desk by Jan. 31. She’s to receive back pay and legal fees that her attorneys estimate will total about $2 million.

Despite the ultimate success, the case illustrated ways in which the laws protecting whistleblowers can be weak and occasionally bizarre.

For instance, the Merit Systems Protection Board, in ruling for Chambers this month, said she was entitled to whistleblower protection when she told the public that because of inadequate funding, too few Park Police were available to stop drunk drivers on the George Washington Parkway. But the board said protection was not afforded her statement that “the staffing and resource crisis” would probably lead to loss of life or destruction of a national icon such as the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty.

The latter warning was certainly of greater interest to the taxpayers who paid Chambers’s salary. But it was “too vague and nonspecific to be protected” by the whistleblower law, the board said.

In short, though welcome, the ruling doesn’t go far enough to protect whistleblowers, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the nonprofit group that led her defense.

“The Chambers problem, which is somebody being candid in an uncoordinated fashion, still puts people at risk,” Ruch said. “The underlying issue is: Can federal civil servants be disciplined for being honest? And the answer is yes.”

Back in late 2003, Chambers thought that she was being a team player and helping to anticipate criticism when she told Post reporter David Fahrenthold that the Park Police was underfunded and understaffed. She was largely confirming information that Fahrenthold had already obtained from the Fraternal Order of Police.

“I really believed that what I was doing was exactly what the Department of Interior wanted,” Chambers said.

Instead, somebody above Chambers was enraged and had her canned. It’s still murky who was really behind the move and why anyone was so upset. (The Park Police wouldn’t comment, saying it’s a confidential personnel matter.)

Over the years, as she worked hard to correct the injustice, Chambers said she drew inspiration from the many supporters who sent messages of encouragement via a Web site, honestchief.com, set up by her husband. A recent note that particularly appealed to her came from Joe Morrash, a retired detective from the Alexandria Police Department. It read:

“I have very few ‘heroes’ I can point to for inspiration, e.g. Marshal Matt Dillon, Elliott Ness, The Lone Ranger and of course, the Green Hornet. However, you Teresa, have given me pause and allowed me to again realize that there are still some heroes out there for an old copper like me to look up to.”

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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