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

By Joe Davisdon
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."

For an agency head to say a larger budget is needed or cutbacks will have to be made hardly seems controversial or insubordinate. To warn the public of potential danger unless changes are made is commendable.

But the political bosses in office during President George W. Bush's administration didn't see it that way. She was placed on administrative leave two days after the article was published and fired in July 2004.

She was shocked. Recovery was difficult. She had a hard time finding work. Finally, three years ago, she was hired as police chief in Riverdale Park, in Prince George's County. The 30-person force, covering 2.3-square miles, wasn't quite the national park police, but Chambers was glad to be a cop again.

"Policing in local communities is personal, and you can see the result of your labor in short order," she said. "It's personal police service."

Mayor Vernon Archer said that he always knew her victory would be his town's loss but that he's "very happy, not only for her but for all of us. I think it's a victory for depoliticizing police work in general," he said. "I think we all win with this case."

Advocates are optimistic that legislation to strengthen whistleblower rights will advance in the new Congress, after falling just short as time ran out in December.

The advocates say the MSPB decision indicates the board is becoming a more welcoming place for federal employees who dare to point out government shortcomings. "It is hopefully a sign of a new day at the MSPB," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "I think they are becoming more fact-based."

Chambers had reason to expect this day would have come before now.

On his first full day in office, President Obama told agencies that his "administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government."

More to the point, his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as a member of Congress had complained about the Chambers case in a news release while Bush was still in office.

Yet the Obama administration continued the pursuit of Chambers.

"We have never been able to understand that," said Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization that led her defense.

Dinerstein and PEER's executive director, Jeff Ruch, were, of course, delighted with the decision.

"A resounding victory," Ruch called it. "It was a 'wow' decision that I think is unappealable."

But he warned against overstating its importance. Ruch, who made the "false beacon" remark, said other whistleblowers, in less prominent cases with fewer resources, are unlikely to prevail.

"She and her husband basically put together a resistance movement," Ruch added, "and we became her guerrilla army."

A reason to celebrate? Sure. But for Ruch, the fact that she has had to fight for years to get to this point also is an example of "how crappy the civil service justice system is."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company