A victory for former Park Police chief might not be a victory for whistleblowers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 10:55 PM

A Federal Diary column in April carried the headline: "Will day of justice finally arrive for Park Police whistleblower?"

Soon, the answer for Teresa C. Chambers, former chief of the U.S. Park Police, will probably be yes. But for today, the answer remains: not yet.

Although a Merit Systems Protection Board ruling for Chambers makes a final victory seem close, the Interior Department could still appeal the board's order to reinstate her as police chief.

Chambers was suspended and then fired for valid, but uncomfortable, statements she made to The Washington Post in 2003. She has become one of the better-known whistleblowers, and her victory would send important, but mixed, signals. One of her strongest supporters said the ruling "will serve as a beacon of false hope for thousands."

Peter Mina, a federal workplace lawyer with the Tully Rinckey firm, said the time it has taken for Chambers to get to this point "shows that there are not enough protections in place for federal employee whistleblowers."

True, but today is sweet for Chambers: "It's everything; it's the complete vindication," she said of the ruling by the MSPB, a panel that reviews certain federal personnel decisions.

Talk of victory is conditional until Interior announces its reaction. If wiser heads prevail, the department won't appeal. Of course, had wiser heads prevailed originally, the case would have been settled long ago or, better yet, not been brought at all.

Closemouthed as usual in personnel cases, the department gives no clue about what it will do. "We are reviewing the MSPB's decision and have no further comment at this time," reads a terse National Park Service statement.

Originally, Chambers had six charges against her, but the guts of the case flowed from statements she had made to The Post in a December 2003 article.

The case has always been confusing because it seemed so weak. Chambers's remarks focused on her agency's need for more money. Staffing shortages, she said, could lead to declining safety in parks, increased traffic accidents on parkways and long shifts with limited bathroom breaks for her officers.

Not exactly scandalous stuff.

Perhaps her most controversial comment was the last line in the piece: "My greatest fear is that harm or death will come to a visitor or employee at one of the parks, or that we're going to miss a key thing at one of our icons."

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