By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007
A federal board ordered the Smithsonian Institution yesterday to reinstate a whistle-blower who was fired in retaliation for reporting that ranking officials of the National Air and Space Museum had misused the institution's world-class aeronautical restoration facility in Maryland for personal projects.
The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board rejected the Smithsonian's appeal of an administrative judge's ruling. The board ordered the Smithsonian to pay Michael Cross, 56, back wages and benefits and reinstate him to his $46,000-a-year job as a museum specialist at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland.
The board ruled that "the administrative judge made no error in law or regulation" in determining that Cross, had been fired on April 12, 2002, because he reported illegal activities at the Air and Space Museum. The institution had alleged he was "disruptive" and took too much time off.
"Hopefully the Smithsonian will finally come to its senses and do the right thing to make Mike Cross whole for all that he has suffered after blowing the whistle," said Cross's attorney, Bryan Schwartz. "In the meantime, Mr. Cross and I are very relieved and encouraged that sometimes our legal system works to correct an injustice done by the powerful against the powerless!"
A Smithsonian spokeswoman said museum officials are reviewing the decision.
Cross's firing came five weeks after he alerted then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small that he had reported the improper activity to the Smithsonian's ombudsman. "We have a situation within our walls that possess crippling potential," Cross wrote in an e-mail to Small in March 2002.
Cross was one of a group of employees who had alleged that two supervisors, Tom Alison, the collections chief of the National Air and Space Museum, and Bill Reese, had told them to do outside work unrelated to their official duties. They also reported that work was done on a private airplane owned by John R. "Jack" Dailey, the director of the Air and Space Museum.
A subsequent investigation by the Smithsonian inspector general substantiated the allegations, including that Dailey had a tow bar and a seat latch repaired on his private aircraft by Smithsonian workers. The work sometimes would take employees away from museum business for days. Among the items repaired were a Colt .45 handgun, motorcycles, bicycles, a candleholder and antique cars, such as an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. Jobs were done for friends and colleagues of Alison, Reese and others.
None of the three supervisors received formal written discipline. Dailey received a verbal admonishment and paid $50 to the institution for the repairs.
An aide to Smithsonian Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke testified at the board hearing that Alison was not disciplined because he was retiring and Reese was spared punishment because "he no longer had supervisory responsibilities."