Old Mother Hubbard

Went to the cupboard,

To get her poor dog a bone:

But when she got there

The cupboard was bare,

And so the poor dog had none.

Generations of children have sympathized with the plight of Ms. Hubbard and her attempts to beg or borrow a bone for her hungry pooch.

As it turns out, however, she was lucky she didn't work for the U.S. government where bone-napping can be a federal offense.

Consider what is known in federal legal circles as the case of the Taking of Pork Chop Lil:

Lil (not her real name) was a 26-year veteran of the Veterans Administration, working at a food service unit in North Carolina.

The VA fired her when guards caught her leaving the office with four slightly rank U.S. government-issue pork chops wrapped in plastic. She said she got the chops from the trash and that the doggie bag was for her dog.

VA said that the woman had a long history of disciplinary problems and unexcused absences, and the meat theft was the last straw.

The American Federation of Government Employes said firing somebody over four old pork chops was going too far. It pointed out that the woman was undergoing treatment for alcoholism, and clearly thought the meat was a throwaway, since it was in the garbage can.

AFGE said that other employes who had been caught removing, or consuming, food had been reprimanded, made to pay for the victuals or, in some cases, suspended--but not fired. It said the government could not fire her, while she was under treatment, for noncriminal acts, and that pulling four chops from the trash was hardly criminal.

VA stood its ground, and said the dismissal was for the good of the service.

The case went to the Federal Labor Relations Authority. FLRA ordered a hearing.

The government brought in eight witnesses, including the suspect's boss and the guards who impounded the meat.

VA's personnel experts said the woman had a poor work record.

The guards said the woman made no attempt to conceal the meat, and she agreed to the search.

Union officers documented previous incidents of employes getting sticky fingers with food where the punishment was more in line with the crime.

Management countered that the removal action was not harsh and "was not a hasty one, but one of careful consideration based on her past disciplinary record." It said she had been counseled about numerous work problems many times.

The union said she did it for her dog, and that she had never been counseled about taking pork chops from the trash.

After hearing the evidence, an outside arbitrator ruled that VA had been too tough. He ordered that the employe be reinstated to her job with full back pay -- except for 15 days, which he said was the proper punishment for "removal of leftover food: government property."

The note on the case reads: "Discharge overturned. Grievant gets 3 week suspension. Four pork chops equal 15 days.''