In the past 10 years, investigative reporter Al Louis Ripskis has exposed corruption, waste and bun-gling at the Housing and Urban Development Department by writing, editing and bankrolling an eight-page, bimonthly newsletter.
During that same period, Ripskis has been employed as a GS13 program analyst in HUD's Office of Policy and Budget.
Those roles of muckraker and bureaucrat make Ripskis an aberration in the federal government. Not only has he bitten the hand that feeds him, but he has bitten it hard and deep and yet has managed to survive.
To understand why that is an achievement, you only have to look at back copies of Ripskis' IMPACT Journal, which he started in September, 1972. In one of the first issues, for example, Ripskis disclosed that 200 children had died in 1972 after eating lead paint in HUD-owned properties, while HUD delayed taking steps mandated by Congress that might have saved the children.
That issue also asked whether the HUD secretary, George W. Romney, should be charged with "malfeasance" and disclosed that another high-ranking HUD official had been "cavorting with a female assistant all over the country at taxpayers' expense." The official eventually was forced to resign.
The issues that followed have been just as dramatic. Ripskis has made national headlines by printing a confidential memo written by a top HUD official about mismanagement at the agency. He is credited with forcing HUD to end an elaborate sign-in, sign-out security process that cost $59,992 a year.
He has tattled on a HUD official who used public funds to vacation in Arizona and another official who used tax dollars to finance a Hawaiian honeymoon. And in 1979, he conducted a sexual harassment survey at HUD that prompted a wide scale congressional investigation into sexual harassment at federal agencies.
"IMPACT Journal is not your typical irreverent, in-house bulletin board sheet," consumer advocate Ralph Nader said. "It deals with serious policy failures."
Ripskis does have critics. He has been called a "publicity seeker" who prints some stories "without all the facts." But it appears that Ripskis has more admirers than detractors.
"He's a pretty gutsy guy," said Kenneth R. Harney, a syndicated real estate columnist who has covered HUD for several years. "He was running stories about lead poisoning in children when no one else was paying attention."
Another Ripskis fan said the term "whistleblower" really doesn't apply to the bureaucrat. He's more of "a calliope."
Ripskis said his upbringing groomed him for the gadfly role. He was born in 1937 in Lithuania, where his father was active in politics. His family fled to Germany in 1944 and lived in camps for displaced persons until 1949, when they emigrated to the United States, settling in a poor section of Chicago. In 1960, he went to work there at what was then the Public Housing Administration.
Ripskis said he spent 12 years "working within the system" but few of his ideas were implemented. "The bureaucracy just didn't respond."
So in 1971, he joined several colleagues who had started a newsletter called Quest, which criticized HUD, the Nixon administration and Vietnam. A year later, the newsletter's editor was transferred to Alaska.
"Exiling someone for exercising his right to freedom of speech really hit me," said Ripskis. "My family had come here to get away from that."
He took over as editor. "HUD had received so much bad publicity about transferring the first editor that it left me alone."
Ripskis immediately caused a flap involving then-Secretary Romney. Since the agency opened its doors in 1965, HUD had been content with a 45-foot flagpole in front of its building--that is, until the Transportation Department erected two 75-foot flagpoles directly across the street.
Romney reacted swiftly by ordering HUD's flagpole ripped out and replaced by two 80-foot poles, at a cost of $26,000. Ripskis tipped off newspaper reporters.
When Quest's original editor eventually returned, Ripskis launched IMPACT. It has survived, he said, because he is a realist.
"I am not a martyr," Ripskis explained. "Many whistleblowers become fanatic about one issue. I keep an element of detachment. IMPACT is a means to a certain end. There will be other times, I tell myself, to fight some battles."
Ripskis spends about $3,000 of his $41,426 annual salary on the newsletter--something he can afford to do, he said, because he is single. He has not tried to make his 75-cents-a-copy newsletter into a "mass circulation" publication; rather he has concentrated on delivering it to top HUD officials and key congressional committees because they implement policy.
He also makes sure that reporters get it. When newspapers pick up on his stories, he said, it protects him from being fired and also gives him clout at HUD.
A HUD official once told a Federal Times reporter that IMPACT had kept HUD from launching several projects. The official said a HUD manager once blurted out at a meeting, "What if that son-of-a-bitch Ripskis gets hold of this and it gets exposed in IMPACT, and the wire services pick it up?"
With clout has come harassment, Ripskis said. A few years ago, a drawer in his desk was set on fire. Sharp objects have been placed under his car tires. He has received threatening telephone calls. And, at one point, a manager assigned him a desk in the midst of heavy smokers. Ripskis does not smoke.
A HUD spokesman said the Reagan administration views "any employe who is concerned about waste, fraud and abuse as a friend" because "we share similar goals." No one at HUD has harassed Ripskis since the new administration took office, the official said.
A few weeks ago, security guards stopped Ripskis from selling IMPACT inside HUD, but Leonard Burchman, a HUD spokesman, said it was not because of the newsletter's content but rather because HUD officials do not think it is legal for Ripskis to sell it inside public buildings. Ripskis said he has copies of a court case permitting such sales; Burchman said HUD is investigating.
HUD also has refused to tell Ripskis which of its employes have received "outstanding ratings," which can give employes an extra four years of seniority when reductions-in-force or furloughs are made.
HUD said it denied the request because it must protect employes' privacy, even though Ripskis has said he will not name the employes. Ripskis believes the ratings system may have been abused and has filed a suit to get the names.
Ripskis's own rating has not changed much since he began publishing IMPACT. He has remained a GS13 since 1972. It used to bother him, he said, but not now. In three years, he will have worked for the federal government 25 years and can retire. What then?
"I'd really like to go over to DOD the Department of Defense ," he said. "I bet the waste there makes the waste here look minuscule."