The system finally did her right, but it would be an overstatement to say it worked. Chambers was reinstated only after protracted legal action. It took “seven years, one month and 26 days,” she said.
Shortly before leaving office, Chambers recalled those days. She said she is not bitter, but she clearly has a bad feeling about the effectiveness of the system that is supposed to protect federal whistleblowers from retaliation by bosses.
“The system of due process for civil servants in the federal government is in name only,” she said. “At least that’s my experience.”
Her case does not mean that Uncle Sam gags all his workers, prohibits whistleblowers from ever speaking out or provides no redress for those who are punished when they do. That is not the case. Yet, her situation is instructive and frightening because it shows what the government can do to federal employees who are candid about the services their agencies provide the public. If a chief of police is treated like this, what can happen to the low-ranking folks in any agency?
The message from her experience: Speak at your own risk.
Chambers was suspended by the George W. Bush administration after she spoke to The Washington Post about the disruption in police services caused by budget cuts. Among other things, she said that accidents on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway had increased as the number of officers assigned to the highway declined and that the agency did not have enough officers to properly protect its areas.
The “Proposed Removal” notice her supervisor, Donald Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service, sent to her on Dec. 17 listed six administrative charges. An example: No. 2 said her comments “constitute public remarks about the scope of security present and contemplated.”
The Merit Systems Protection Board, which had ruled against Chambers twice, as did an administrative law judge, reversed itself after Obama administration appointees joined the panel. The board then found the agency’s action against Chambers were the result of reprisal and retaliation and the charges were too weak to be sustained.
“In sum, we find that the agency’s evidence in support of its actions was not strong at the time it took the actions [and] the record demonstrates that the acting officials had a significant motive to retaliate against the appellant,” MSPB said in its January 2011 decision.
Paul Hoffman was a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department when Chambers was fired, an action he continues to defend. He agreed with the MSPB’s earlier upholding of the firing and called the board’s reversal of that decision “political.”
The last decision said Hoffman and Murphy had “strong motives to retaliate” against Chambers. Hoffman called that “absolutely false.” Murphy declined to comment.
In the end, Chambers won. But the lessons of her victory aren’t pleasant.
As she reflected on her time as chief, Chambers had lots of good things to say about her police officers, but she did not sugarcoat her experience.
“Sadly, the lessons are mostly negative ones,” she said. “It’s a herculean fight to take on the federal government.”
Many employees don’t have that fight in them. They might not have the emotional strength, the legal assistance and the other resources that were significant factors in Chambers’s victory.
When she joined the Park Police, she was already retired from an earlier law enforcement job. Her husband also was retired. They had income that wasn’t dependent on her federal gig. Her husband started a Web site on her plight. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) provided attorneys and help with public relations. “Without their help,” she said, “I’m sure I would have had to give up the battle long ago.”
It takes a lot of money to fight without outside assistance. The personal toll is great in any case. “This will wear a person down,” Chambers said.
Her suggestion to employees who feel they have been mistreated: Seek advice from groups that work with feds, “privately, anonymously initially.”
“Once your name is out there,” she warned, “retaliation is a possibility and perhaps likely.”
Previous columns by Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.