Coming Soon: A Tale of Whistle-Blowing at the EPA
Monday, July 10, 2006
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is ready for her close-up.
She sold the story of her battles with the Environmental Protection Agency to Hollywood, and actor Danny Glover is preparing a movie about how she blew the whistle against the agency and successfully sued for race and gender discrimination.
But Coleman-Adebayo is no star at the EPA, which has described her as a bad employee who refuses to work with others. She was allowed to work at home for five years because of a medical condition, but when she resisted coming back in April, the EPA took away her pay.
"They are really trying to break me, financially, emotionally and everything else," Coleman-Adebayo, 53, said in a recent interview.
The tense, stressful, dramatic and sometimes-ugly relationship between employer and employee is the stuff of movies. But the case involves larger issues about how the government treats employees who feel they are being retaliated against. Coleman-Adebayo and others say it amounts to corruption.
Her career at the EPA took a bad turn after she complained that the agency stood by in 1996 as a U.S. chemical company mined a deadly substance in South Africa. She won a $600,000 discrimination judgment against the agency in 2000.
"Adebayo's case is interesting because the issues of whistle-blowing and retaliation in federal government are larger than any one employee, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11," said Joslyn Barnes, a New York screenwriter who is working on the screenplay.
The EPA declined to discuss Coleman-Adebayo's complaints because a second lawsuit she filed against the agency is pending and because her case is a personnel matter.
"EPA will not comment on the specifics of the pending litigation except to deny that EPA has discriminated or retaliated against Dr. Coleman-Adebayo," EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said in a prepared statement last month.
The agency's opinions of Coleman-Adebayo are revealed in court documents and recent e-mails that she provided. In one e-mail, a supervisor, Rafael DeLeon, dismissed her complaints of "hostile workplace events" and a "pattern and practice of harassment." They are not medical facts, he wrote. They "merely represent your self-serving and baseless version of events."
Court records show that the EPA includes one white supervisor who referred to Coleman-Adebayo, who is African American, as "an honorary white person," and another supervisor who allegedly referred to her as "uppity," a segregation-era word for black people who do not accept the notion that they are inferior. The supervisors were never reprimanded.
The federal workplace is rife with complaints by whistle-blowers of retaliation, often involving threats of job loss. Such complaints usually play out in an arcane equal-opportunity process, rarely seeing the light of day.