Serving Uncle Sam can be dangerous – even deadly.
Four federal employees have died in the line of duty so far in fiscal 2015, following two in fiscal 2014, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). That doesn’t include contractors working for the federal government, like the security officer killed last Friday while protecting a federal building in New York City. The Tuesday before that, three correctional workers were assaulted in the Canaan, Pa., federal prison.
OPM did not have the names of the six civilian employees who died since 2014, but it did provide their agencies: three were from the Defense Department, two from the Department of Veterans Affairs and one from the Department of Homeland Security. OPM said “line of duty” injuries include those “suffered as a result of a criminal act, an act of terrorism, a natural disaster, or other circumstance as determined by the President.”
Certainly, millions of federal employees and contractors go to work every day with no worry and little chance of being assaulted or killed. But when injury or death is at the hand of another, it demonstrates the particular danger that comes with the federal service.
It was a criminal act that killed Idrissa Camara. He was shot by a former federal employee, a whistleblower who took his own life after shooting Camara. Kevin Downing, a New Jersey veteran and former Labor Department employee, killed himself within seconds of shooting Camara, according to a co-worker who was there. Camara leaves a wife and three children.
Downing called me after almost every whistleblower column I wrote, providing updates on his case. He was always courteous and calm. He seemed reasonable. But not anymore.
Camara “never saw this coming,” said Alexander Lakhtarnik, a former police officer who was on duty with Camara at 201 Varick Street, a 12-story Art Deco building in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Lakhtarnik said Camara, “a wonderful human being” from Ivory Coast, knew the building and the federal employees working there better than anyone.
Raymond Smith, Camara’s supervisor with FJC Security Services, hasn’t slept well since the shooting. FJC and the Department of Homeland Security held a memorial service for him Thursday.
“His smile lit up from here to Broadway,” Smith said. “His face lit up every time he speaks. You could almost feel the energy every time he speaks.
Smith, noting that Camara was a naturalized U.S. citizen, emphasized that he was not a security guard, but a trained protective security officer standing against terrorism. “He’s a very professional person. He’s a very graceful individual,” Smith added. “He loved this job … he loved this country.”
Downing probably did too.
But he also was frustrated with his government and he could not let that go.
The former Labor Department economist continued to press his unjust termination claims after rejection and with little chance of winning. A Merit Systems Protection Board (MSBP) document says he claimed he had been fired as a whistleblower because he contacted Congress about plans to close a Bureau of Labor Statistics office in New York without justification. He also claimed his termination was related to his role in a letter some Labor Department employees sent to members of Congress asking them to prevent cuts in service to the public.
An MSPB administrative judge dismissed Downing’s appeal of his termination and that decision was upheld by the board in 2004. The next year, his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was dismissed because he failed to pay the required docketing fee.
Downing had an “unshakable determination” and sought congressional or presidential action on his case, said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP). GAP is a whistleblower advocacy organization that was familiar with Downing’s case, but it did not represent him. GAP did offer him suggestions, but Downing would “reject them all,” Devine said. “He listened and completely ignored me.”
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) told the Associated Press he and members of his staff had spoken with Downing about his case. “We felt that this person had been given a raw deal, to put it mildly, and that there was no excuse for it and he had been treated very badly,” Pascrell said.
In a 2013 letter “To Whom it May Concern,” Pascrell said “There is evidence to indicate that Mr. Downing’s termination was inappropriate because it was in retaliation for his communication with Congressional staff regarding what he believed to be waste and abuse present in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal employees should not live in fear that they will be terminated for seeking a more effective and efficient federal government.”
Pascrell encouraged potential future employers to give Downing “every appropriate consideration.”
When Downing called me, he would name White House officials and members of Congress and their staffers whom he said were working on his case. Ever polite, Downing was never the insistent pest some repeat callers can be. He encouraged me to continue writing about whistleblowers and invited me to include a mention of his case. I never did. I now wish I had.
He never told me about his financial troubles, but he was about to lose his home, according to Shanna Devine, GAP’s legislative director and investigator.
“You could tell he was desperate,” she said.
No one knew just how desperate.