In a driving rainstorm at the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oklahoma, refuge manager Darrin Unruh worried that his flood-prone house nearby would be underwater.
So he directed four of his employees to fill hundreds of bags with sand from the banks of the Deep Fork River, load them on the back of a government-owned Ford truck and drive them to his house to fortify the perimeter.
Angry that the boss broke the rules by ordering his staff to do a personal favor with government equipment, the maintenance worker who filled and loaded 200 sandbags complained to his human-resources department.
Michael Hames, Jr. was fired, after four long years of what he describes as constant harassment by his supervisors, who built a case to force him out.
An administrative judge found that Unruh and two of Hames’s other supervisors at the Fish and Wildlife Service fired him in retaliation for whistleblowing — and ordered him returned to work with back pay.
But in May, something unusual happened. Eight years after the sandbag incident, the bosses each were suspended without pay as punishment for the payback they sought, discipline that almost never happens and, say advocates for whistleblowers, should.
“It’s very hard to take disciplinary action against managers who retaliate against employees who bring wrongdoing to light,” said Carolyn Lerner, who heads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which announced the discipline Tuesday.
“It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should,” Lerner said, after her agency convinced the wildlife service it should take action. “This case is a great example of an agency doing the right thing.”
While there are laws that protect whistleblowers from retaliation from what are called “protected” disclosures of wrongdoing by federal officials, there is no statute requiring that managers who retaliated be disciplined. Advocates say this shortcoming discourages employees from coming forward, and allows reprisals to continue.
Unruh, who had already received a 30-day suspension for ordering his employees to lay sandbags around his house in March 2008, was suspended for 14 days. Timothy Walker, deputy refuge manager and Hames’s immediate supervisor, was suspended for 10 days.
And Patrick Kelly McDowell — a regional supervisor who presented Hames with a gag order that could save his job if he agreed never to discuss the sandbag incident, accepted a transfer and waived his rights to file a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel or the Merit Systems Protection Board — had to take five unpaid days. (Hames refused to sign the “Last Chance Agreement.”)
The Fish and Wildlife Service also agreed to have the Office of Special Counsel train all refuge employees at Deep Fork and nearby Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge on personnel practices that are prohibited.
Neither Unrah, Walker or McDowell responded to requests for comment left at their offices by the Post.
Agency spokeswoman Beth Britt, in an emailed statement, called the discipline an “internal personnel matter in which the case has been settled and those responsible have completed the required settlement terms.”
Hames, in his 15th year running the maintenance shop at Deep Fork, said in an interview: “I’m happy they got some type of punishment. But it wasn’t nearly what they did to me.”
A single parent of four children who is paid $50,000 a year, Hames said he had to file for personal bankruptcy after his firing to keep the bank from foreclosing on his house in Glenpool, Okla., south of Tulsa.
He said he enjoys his job, “but the work environment for the longest time was terrible.”
“It was crazy,” he said. “I was isolated and management didn’t want any of the other employees talking to me.”