OSHA Plans to Fire Employee Put on Paid Leave Since Mid-2007

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Remember Bob Whitmore?

A couple of months ago, we wrote about the 37-year Labor Department employee who has been on paid administrative leave for almost two years. Whitmore was sent home a few days after a July 10, 2007, confrontation with his supervisor, but he has continued to collect his $150,000 annual salary for doing nothing.

Finally, officials in the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration are moving to end the limbo. They plan to fire him. The reasons are detailed in a 19-page memo sent to Whitmore. An investigation by an outside contractor revealed, the memo said, "a longstanding pattern of inappropriate conduct on your part that caused many employees to fear for their safety."

Rather than fretting over the end of his paid leave, Whitmore welcomes the opportunity to contest the charges against him. "My main goal is to get back to work and do my job," he said. "This forces them to prove there is a reason they stuck me out here for all this time other than political motives."

Whitmore and his attorney say the motives for his proposed dismissal are connected to his complaints that OSHA was too cozy with corporate officials who, he said, were allowed to underreport worker injuries.

Nothing in the memo explains why officials allowed the case to remain unresolved for so long, why they allowed taxpayers to pay a senior civil servant to do zip month after month after month, why they seem to have disregarded notions of fairness to the employee, who was only now given details of the accusations and had just seven days to reply.

This is not to say the charges against Whitmore are bogus. But guilty or not, he, federal employees generally and those who pay their salaries have a right to expect a process that advances in a sensible time frame, not one that takes 21 months to furnish workers with details of the accusations leveled against them.

Department policy calls for administrative leave to be "reasonable and brief." Obviously, the "brief" part has been violated, and there is nothing in the memo to indicate it has been "reasonable."

"There's nothing new in there, so why did they wait?" Whitmore asked in an interview.

Good question. But Labor Department officials aren't answering. Confidentiality rules prevent them from discussing individual personnel cases.

The memo from Steven F. Witt, director of cooperative and state programs, cites three reasons for Whitmore's "proposed removal" -- disruptive and intimidating behavior, conduct unbecoming a supervisor and inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

After those charges are detailed, eight pages of the memo contain various complaints about Whitmore's "disrespectful and unprofessional behavior" that led some co-workers to "avoid any contact with you in fear of an unpleasant or violent encounter."

Reason No. 1 contains what seems to be the most serious charge. Among other things, it says Whitmore's argument with his supervisor, Joe DuBois, got heated to the point that Whitmore was yelling "so uncontrollably that you showered him [DuBois] with your saliva."

To the contrary, said Whitmore, who insists DuBois did the spitting. Whitmore said he has an unlaundered shirt to prove he was the one spitted upon.

"Just as Monica Lewinsky saved the evidence, I can prove without a doubt who is the liar," Whitmore said.

As for the other charges, they are a "bunch of crap," he said.

He will have an opportunity to present his case -- including, presumably, his DNA evidence -- when he and his attorney respond to the April 3 memo. They have requested an extension to the seven-day reply period.

The department official who reviews Whitmore's information and the accusations can take a range of actions, such as reinstating him, affirming the dismissal or presenting a less severe punishment, according to his attorney, Bob Seldon. After that, Seldon said, the case could move to the Office of Special Counsel and/or the Merit Systems Protection Board, then, possibly, to the court system.

"My objective is to see him fully vindicated and returned," Seldon said. "This is clear whistleblower retaliation."

Whitmore has support from an unlikely source -- Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees. It's unlikely because Whitmore is part of management. He is not a union member, though he was previously.

In a letter yesterday to Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary for OSHA, AFGE Local 12 President Alex Bastani said, "If you allow this termination to take place, then all of President Obama's promises of an open government cannot be brought to fruition."

The union has invited Whitmore to speak next Tuesday at a luncheon at the Labor Department's headquarters to discuss revitalization of the agency's enforcement role. But the featured speaker might not be able to get in.

"You will not be allowed to enter the building," the memo to Whitmore says, "unless it is absolutely necessary."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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