In the first case of its kind, the government's biggest mental institution has been ordered to stop harassing an employe it moved from management to maintenance after he blew the whistle on alleged job-tampering by his superiors.
The brand-new Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), in its first case, has told St. Elizabeths Hospital to restore James B. Nagel to his old white-collar job. He has been detailed to the maintenance-engineering section. It agreed with Nagel, a Grade 12 administrative assistant, that the transfer was punitive for his charges that 10 employes got improper pay raises and promotions, worth several thousand dollars each.
The MSBP was created under the new civil service reform law to protect federal workers from reprisal for whistle-blowing. Those complaints are investigated by the Office of Special Counsel. It recommends corrective action to the board.This was the first official action of both the board and the MSBP.
Nagel's problems started more than a year ago. He wrote the old Civil Service Commission complaining that 10 fellow workers at the hospital had been promoted during a promotion freeze. Nagel charged various plays, including back-dating of promotion papers, were used to skirt the freeze. All the employes in question earned between $27,000 and $42,000, and promotions for them were worth pay raises of several thousand dollars a year.
The Commission investigated Nagel's allegations. It agreed that improper actions had taken place in 7 of 10 cases. CSC's report to the director of the National Institute for Mental Health -- the HEW agency controlling St. Elizabeths -- said there had been "willing and unwarranted abuse of the classification and promotion system" by top hospital officals.
It said that lower-level hospital personnel had gone along with the paperwork unwillingly, but fixed the blame on top hospital employes who, CSC investigators said, overrode those objections.
Nagel complained that after he blew the whistle, hospital officials put him in a bureaucratic version of purgatory. Coworkers stopped talking to him on the job, and he was transferred to the maintenance section over objections, of section chief A. Richard Stirni. Stirni said he did not have a job for Nagel and and he was subsequently transferred from his Grade 15 job to an "unestablished position" in the exhibits section of the hospital.
The Office of Special Counsel also asked the board to direct the hospital to stop harassing Stirni. But the board denied it "without prejudice." That means the counsel can come back to the board with additional evidence, if he choose.
St. Elizabeths hospital officials said they would have no comment on the board action at this time. A spokesman said the hospital had not been officially advised of the board's decision.
The action -- if the board makes it stick -- should get Nagel out of the boiler room back to his old job. And it ought to give federal whistle-blowers, who formerly peddled their complaints haphazardly to newspapers and the Congress, some hope that they now have a place where they can get official relief, at least some of the time.
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