Dr. Carl L. Telleen, a 71-year-old veterinarian who refuses to leave well enough alone, has got the Agriculture Department buffaloed.
He won't quit his GS-13 job, he won't buckle to the pressures that policy makers put on him and, most of all, he won't stop saying that he thinks the USDA does an lousy job of inspecting and regulating the meatpacking industry.
Telleen is one of the whistle blowers -- those faceless government employes who finally get fed up with what they see happening around them and start talking about it publicly, regardless of the consequences. For Telleen, the consequences have been heavy.
He has been reprimanded (twice) for talking out of school. He was transferred to Washington from a meat-inspection job in the Midwest for talking out of school. He has been assigned to a job that has nothing to do with meat safety. And he won't stop talking out of school.
Telleen's latest brush with USDA officialdom began in the summer, when he published an article in the Des Moines Register, warning that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was allowing contaminated meat to reach the American dinner table. FSIS hit the roof.
In August, FSIS personnel director W.J. Hudnall sent him a scolding letter charging that the article was erroneous and that he had been found guilty of "misconduct" -- which included making remarks that "adversely affect public confidence in USDA." Hudnall said no discipline was planned, but the agency "will not tolerate similar acts of misconduct on your part in the future."
With help from the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a whistle blowers' protection group, Telleen appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board to have the USDA gag order declared unconstitutional and in violation of civil service law. He said the MSPB turned him down.
But in late November, without any explanation, Hudnall sent Telleen another letter, advising him that the reprimand had been rescinded and all copies of the admonishing letter destroyed. It didn't matter all that much, Telleen said the other day, because "I wasn't silenced by management's threats anyway."
Said his attorney, GAP legal director Thomas Devine: "This is the first ray of free speech at USDA in the seven years GAP has been monitoring the agency . . . . Dr. Telleen's spunk in defending himself inspired a series of new whistle blowers to contact us . . . . Public service is not dead at the Department of Agriculture -- it had just gone underground."
Telleen came to his militancy at a relatively late age. He joined USDA in 1960 after 21 years as a practicing veterinarian in his home state of Iowa. He was assigned to meat inspection in the Denver area, then served in other USDA posts around the country before landing in Lawrence, Kan., 10 years ago on a special inspection-auditing team.
"They told us our job was to see that the law was enforced and enforced equally. The law is clear -- there can be no contamination in inspected meat," Telleen said. But, he added, the reality was something different.
"They told us a plant could have as much as 28,000 pounds of contaminated meat per week and that it would only be a 'minor' infraction . . . . They reversed some of the bad ratings of plants where we found serious sanitary violations . . . . They continued to ignore proper procedures for keeping germs out of ready-to-eat meat," he said.
As he pointed out these things to his superiors, he said, his ideas were brushed aside. An official reprimand went into his personnel folder in 1981 after he charged that the FSIS wasn't doing all it could to prevent salmonella contamination. But Telleen kept talking publicly.
"It was like a divine light hit me back there in Lawrence when the boss was reprimanding me, telling me that these protections were not mandatory. I know what the law says and it made me feel as though I had a mission to get the story out," he said.
In 1982, agency officials gave Telleen 30 days to decide if he wanted to move to a new, undefined job in Washington. "They figured since I was past 65, and had just remodeled the house in Lawrence, I would retire," he said. "By then, I wanted to come in here and fight them."
Telleen charges that the department scrapes and bows to the wishes of the packing industry, speeding up and weakening the inspection system and allowing tainted meat to reach consumers. The department consistently rejects these charges, although it conceded recently that there may be some flaws in the system.
Whatever the case, the department isn't listening to Telleen's views on the matter. He is assigned to "special projects" at FSIS -- a job that has him reviewing food-safety recommendations in the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant.
"Of course," Telleen said, "I don't know anything about that. And that's why I'm assigned to it . . . . They don't promote guys like me. Around here, the dumber you are, the higher you go."