By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 7:20 PM
Teresa Chambers is back in her office.
Ultimately, she overcame an unworthy effort to boot her from her job as chief of the U.S. Park Police. She was reinstated Monday, bringing to an end a long, high-profile battle in which a whistleblower scored an uncommon victory over Uncle Sam.
Victories, however, are no longer as rare as they once were. The reason: The Merit Systems Protection Board, now with two Obama administration appointees, is decidedly more employee-friendly than it was two years ago.
Chambers's case illustrates the point.
It's been more than eight years since she was suspended, then fired, basically for her comments in a Washington Post article. She had the unfailing backing of Jeff Chambers, her husband of 25 years, who created a Web site in her support, free legal representation by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and good publicity. Not many whistleblowers have so many weapons.
Yet she wasn't allowed to wear the Park Police uniform for many years largely because the protection board twice failed to protect her. It was September 2006 when the board first ruled against her. A federal court then decided in her favor and sent the case back to MSPB, which went against her again in January 2009.
But by then, change that Chambers eventually could believe in was beginning to take hold in Washington. She appealed the MSPB decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which threw out some extraneous charges.
Again the case went back to MSPB, where it was greeted by new faces. President Obama's appointees dominate the three-member board. It vindicated Chambers in January and ordered the Interior Department to give her her job back.
"I would not be reinstated if it were not for the two newest members that were appointed by this administration," Chambers said. "In my mind there is no doubt about that. This was our third time before the board."
The new members include the chairman, Susan Tsui Grundmann, and Anne M. Wagner. Lawyers, both have worked for federal labor unions. The other member, Mary M. Rose, has a long history of federal personnel positions under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. She also was a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, where she worked with Bush's transition team.
The current board went back and examined evidence dating to January 2004, a month after her suspension, Chambers said. "That evidence has been there from the start, and we couldn't get either the administrative judge or the previous boards to look at it. This made all the difference in the world."
This time, the board ruled unanimously in her favor. This isn't the only case that illustrates that it's a new day at the MSPB.
Under Grundmann, the board "made more progress toward protecting the merit system than in any other year since it was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy organization. "It issued landmark precedents that restored its authority to enforce the merit system. It reversed a decade-long trend of ruling against whistleblowers."
Four whistleblower victories in 2010 were one more than the total for the previous decade, Devine said.
Board members declined to comment for this article.
Last week, the board expanded the rights of some employees whom the Office of Personnel Management wants fired after their probationary period ends because they were determined to be "unsuitable" for federal employment. Against OPM arguments, MSPB ruled it could hear appeals of those terminations.
Last month, the board upheld appeal rights of disciplined employees who are in "sensitive positions" but who do not hold security clearances. Board members rejected the government's stance that the ability to appeal should be much more limited.
"In other precedents, the board provided appeal rights against indefinite suspensions while an employee is under investigation, strengthened employee rights to seek mitigation of overly harsh punishment and made it easier to obtain attorney fees" in certain cases, Devine said.
Although things have improved for employees with the current MSPB, the Office of Special Counsel and administrative judges, who also consider whistleblower cases, continue to steam worker advocates.
Administrative judges, Devine said, "continue routinely to rubber-stamp agency reprisals [against whistleblowers] through expansive readings of federal circuit loopholes that have gutted the Whistleblower Protection Act."