Whistleblower Makes Herself Heard on the Hill

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Don't be fooled by Bunnatine H. Greenhouse's nickname.

"Bunny" might have a soft and cuddly side, but it's her watchdog self that got her in trouble.

When Greenhouse blew the whistle on noncompetitive multibillion-dollar contracts to Kellogg Brown & Root, then a Halliburton subsidiary, for work in Iraq's oil fields, she thought she was following her oath of office.

But instead of being honored for doing her duty, Greenhouse, with two decades of government contracting experience, was drummed out of her position in 2005 as chief procurement officer for the Army Corps of Engineers, pushed from the Senior Executive Service and stripped of her security clearance after she refused to retire with grace.

While Greenhouse, 64, continues to fight for personal vindication, her focus now is on the defense of whistleblowers in general. The vehicle for that is the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia is to hear testimony on the bill this afternoon. "It's the only right move to do at this time, because federal employees must be protected," Greenhouse said in an interview yesterday.

One protection that Greenhouse wants -- and a provision that whistleblower advocates consider the litmus test for a meaningful bill -- is the ability for whistleblowers to go before a jury with their allegations that they have been retaliated against for raising charges of fraud, waste and abuse in government operations.

A provision allowing jury trials is included in House legislation that Greenhouse testified in favor of last month. But it is not included in the Senate version that will be discussed today.

Whistleblowers need "full access to court to enforce their rights through a jury trial," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project.

But the Obama administration, which is generally sympathetic to whistleblower rights, has not embraced the concept of jury trials to protect those rights. When Rajesh De, a deputy assistant attorney general, testified before the House, his testimony was notable for what it didn't say about jury trials.

"So far, the administration seems glued to the fence on that issue," Devine said.

Greenhouse feels certain she would prevail if her case went to court. "If I had not done what was in my oath of office to do as the person who was the procurement executive, I could have been wearing . . . prison stripes," she said.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on her case.

She is not impressed with the administration's proposal to create a body within the executive branch for employees who want to make classified whistleblower disclosures. She says that's no better than the avenues already available, which whistleblowers find useless.

It's her view that current government mechanisms for whistleblowers merely protect those in power. "The people who are telling the truth and trying to make sure that improprieties do not affect the public trust, they are going to be the skunks at the picnic," she said.

After Greenhouse testified last month, the Army Corps of Engineers' chief of staff tried to stifle her by ordering that any future testimony would have to be approved in advance, according to her attorneys at the National Whistleblowers Center.

Never the shy one, Greenhouse responded with an open letter to Americans. "I am shocked by this blatant violation of the First Amendment," she wrote. "I said nothing improper during my testimony, I simply told the truth. I was testifying on my own time while I was on unpaid leave."

Her attorneys also jumped into action and released a letter to President Obama. The attempt to silence Greenhouse "constitutes illegal harassment of a witness," they told him. "We expect that you will take prompt corrective action."

The Pentagon backed down. A few days later, Greenhouse was told the directive did not refer to testimony in her personal capacity.

Sick Days in Limbo

Legislation eagerly awaited by federal employees, including one provision that would allow workers to count unused sick days toward retirement, has gone up in smoke, at least for the time being. The amendments will not be attached to a tobacco bill that the Senate is expected to vote on today, as employee lobbyists and advocates had hoped.

"The provision establishing an unused-sick-leave benefit for federal employees enrolled in FERS [the Federal Employee Retirement System] is the one that I am most upset about not being included in the Senate legislation," said Randy Erwin, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "I get calls every day from federal employees that are close to retirement but are putting it off until they know what will happen with the FERS sick-leave issue. . . . But now we just have more uncertainty about it."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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