By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008
Two years ago, Audrick Payne, an elevator inspector for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, testified before the D.C. Council that he shut down two poorly operating elevators in the city's own offices at One Judiciary Square. In fact, he later said, half of the 10,000 elevators in the city did not have valid licenses.
For months, Toby Cooper, a senior executive at the D.C. Lottery, complained about a co-worker who she said touched her inappropriately, asked her embarrassing personal questions and warned her not to tell his wife. When he refused to stop the advances, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.
Stephen P. Amos, a former employee of the D.C. Department of Transportation, claimed in a recent lawsuit that when he exposed improper city road contracts, his boss threatened to have him escorted from the building.
All three former city workers say they are whistle-blowers who were fired for reporting illegal and unethical behavior and hazardous conditions, in violation of the D.C. Whistleblower Reinforcement Act, which offers protection from retaliation. Other D.C. employees who have reported wrongdoing say they've been terminated, threatened and ostracized. Lawyers and advocates of whistle-blowers say that despite the law, employers still retaliate.
Cooper said Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, whose independent agency manages the lottery, did not respond to her complaints and terminated her.
David Umansky, a spokesman for Gandhi, said Gandhi never received Cooper's correspondence because it was directed to the general counsel's office. Umansky said her lawsuit had no merit. And the Office of Human Rights concluded that her case wasn't strong enough to take action against the co-worker.
But the worker was eventually fired after other female employees complained of hair pulling, inappropriate touching and being called "darling" at meetings.
Six weeks after the worker's dismissal, Cooper was also given a pink slip. Her supervisors had warned her not to report the harassment, she said in her complaint. In July, Cooper filed an employee discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
"They fired me for doing what the law says is the right thing to do," Cooper said. "Is it any wonder that no one spoke out all this time about the largest embezzlement case in D.C. history? Of course not. Who would dare speak? It's a culture of corruption -- to look the other way and act like you don't see it."
In November, the Office of Tax and Revenue reported that two workers had been charged with the largest embezzlement case in the city's history. The scam, allegedly led by tax supervisor Harriette Walters, also involved others outside the office and has cost the city up to $50 million.
City officials and residents have repeatedly asked why no one in the tax office reported it, especially because Walters had been conspicuous with gifts and loans to some workers. Tax office employees have said that they didn't know of any wrongdoing and that Walters had said she inherited money from her father and was a high-rolling gambler.
But other government workers say they believe fear of retaliation could have played a part.
The city provides avenues to report suspected illegal activities. Confidential hotlines to the D.C. Office of the Inspector General and to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer exist. The inspector general's hotline receives about 4,000 calls a year, according to its annual report. It noted that many are anonymous calls about minor personnel issues. Last year, 173 complaints from the hotline were investigated, the report said.
The finance office has an Office of Oversight and Integrity, which recently issued a report saying it had conducted 52 probes last year into alleged criminal wrongdoing among the agency's 1,200 employees.
Ben Lorigo, former head of the oversight office, said he was aware of Cooper's allegations, but city policy doesn't allow him to discuss specifics. Cooper said she met with Lorigo but didn't feel comfortable discussing the harassment because the superiors to whom she complained were his peers. In the past, Lorigo said, employees have felt comfortable reporting suspected criminal misconduct. He said he doesn't know why Cooper didn't or why no one came forward about the tax scandal.
"That's a big question people are asking: 'Why didn't somebody come to us?' " he said. "That's a question I still ask."
Umansky said employees have no reason to fear retaliation. They are given a copy of the code of conduct with information on how to confidentially report a violation. The office's Web site and posters throughout government buildings urge workers to report misconduct.
Amos, the transportation employee, claims that when he asked then-General Counsel Peter Nickles to "write a letter of assurance" that he would not be retaliated against for blowing the whistle on alleged legal violations with a contractor, Nickles refused.
Nickles said that Amos failed to provide any evidence of his allegations and that the city is not going to respond to "every wild allegation" by anyone whose job is in jeopardy. Amos said he hadn't known that his job was in jeopardy.
Joseph Bradley, secretary-treasurer of Local 2401 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said union employees fear retaliation, especially if a manager is involved, because "they can make your life miserable."
"A lot of people don't understand the law and they don't trust the law," Bradley said. "Everybody's got a mortgage or rent to pay. You might win a lawsuit two years down the line, but you can't support your family. It's too big of a gamble."
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog organization that works with federal government whistle-blowers, said: "One of the hidden dangers of being a whistle-blower is that the bureaucracy doesn't forget what you've done. The long-term danger, if you survive, is you always have to watch over your shoulder because they're going to get you."
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said she wrote the whistle-blowers law to protect workers after she was tipped off about problems in the police department.
"I did this law 10 years ago in order to avoid the kind of thievery that was happening at Tax and Revenue," said Schwartz, who held hearings after the scandal broke. "I want our employees to make us aware of theft, fraud or abuse before it gets to be a $20-, $30- or $50 million problem. It's mind-boggling that not one individual, including top managers," knew or told.
Schwartz's office gets about three dozen complaints a year from employees who say their whistle-blower rights were violated, her aides said.
Brian Hubbard, a former senior manager at the city's Emergency Management Agency, complained to Schwartz and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) that he was fired in 2006 for questioning how a federal grant was spent. A spokeswoman for the management agency said she could not discuss Hubbard's allegations.
Hubbard said he has applied for 36 city government jobs since then. An 18-year-veteran, he is convinced that he's been "blackballed."
"No one's coming forward because they're telling you, 'If you're not part of my team, be careful of the holes you dig, because you might find yourself in it.' My whole career has been destroyed," he said.
Life had already become harder for Cooper before she was terminated, she said. After she complained about sexual harassment, her car was vandalized in the office parking lot, other employees were told not to work with her and she was intimidated by the friends of the co-worker whom she had reported, she said. Nearly two years after she was terminated, Cooper, who has an MBA in information technology, has not found another job.
The road back can be hard, as Payne attests. Payne, who recently moved his Maryland-based consulting business to the District, said that after he went public about elevator problems, the regulatory affairs department accused him of using his job for private gain. An independent hearing examiner concluded that Payne should be reinstated with back pay in February 2007, but that didn't happen. The department solicited a second hearing examiner, who upheld the firing. Payne then sued. He is waiting for the outcome but said he believes he did the right thing.
"If I had to do it all over again," he said, "I'd do it."