Istvan Toth, a temporary employe of the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska, got angry when he learned that his bosses were advertising an $11.96-an-hour laborer's job that would be given to the least educated and least experienced candidate.
Toth was so upset that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Petersburg Pilot last July, questioning the agency's policy and wondering whether it was "a public relations stunt or just a joke." He also alleged that it was "a well-tailored job on a silver platter for someone special."
"If it is a joke, it is tasteless; and if it is a public relations stunt, it is shameless," Toth wrote.
Four days later, Toth's superiors were writing a letter of their own, telling him he was fired for holding the Forest Service up to public scorn and barring him from future job eligibility in the Forest Service.
Toth complained to the Merit Systems Protection Board, but the Agriculture Department's regional personnel officer, Frank C. Arnold in Juneau, upheld the firing on the ground that Toth's letter to the editor might have undermined local residents' confidence in the integrity of the Forest Service.
Arnold defended recruitment of the least-qualified candidate as "a sound personnel practice" that met Forest Service objectives of hiring "low-skilled and disadvantaged persons" through a worker-trainee program.
Last month, K. William O'Connor, special counsel of the MSPB, filed charges against Robert Lynn and Joseph Chiarella, Toth's supervisors, alleging that they had violated federal personnel rules and Toth's right of free speech.
"I have concluded that the evidence does not show that Toth's letter affected adversely the efficiency of the Forest Service," O'Connor said. "The vague and speculative fears of embarrassment and declining public confidence do not satisfy this standard."
The Toth case is the second during the past year in which Agriculture Department officials have taken disciplinary action against an employe for publicly criticizing their policies. Earlier, Dr. Carl Telleen, a veterinarian with the Food Safety and Inspection Service, was threatened for publishing a newspaper article criticizing federal meat-inspection practices.
If O'Connor's case is upheld by the board, Lynn, a forest supervisor in the Stikine Area Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest, and Chiarella, Petersburg District ranger, could face penalties ranging from fines to dismissal and debarment from federal employment.
O'Connor also wrote to Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, asking that Toth be awarded back pay from the date of his firing to Nov. 15, the scheduled expiration of his temporary employment. He asked Block to remove any adverse comments from Toth's personnel records and to restore his eligibility for rehiring without prejudice.
The special counsel indicated in his letter that if the secretary decided to bring disciplinary action against Lynn and Chiarella, he might consider dropping the case.
A Forest Service spokesman said last week that the agency was preparing to arrange for Toth's back pay and that a letter was in the works to restore Toth's eligibility for employment. But he said no decision had been made on how to deal with Lynn and Chiarella.