Jane Turner loved being a FBI agent.
It had been her dream job since she was 13, and she had been a good agent during her 25 years with the bureau.
But once she became a whistleblower, the FBI turned on her the way the mob turns on a snitch, by her telling. She wasn’t killed, but her career was.
Turner has become a prime example of the way the FBI should not treat whistleblowers. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) cites her case in a report that will be the focus of a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Compared with other feds, FBI whistleblowers have less protection against retaliation by management, the GAO says, and current procedures could discourage whistleblowing.
“Anytime a whistleblower is punished for pointing out waste or misconduct, it sends the signal to other employees that doing the right thing will be met with potentially harsh repercussions,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Federal Diary. “Unfortunately, many who come to me express fear of reprisal for raising the alarm and are even unclear of their rights as whistleblowers. In fact, one potential witness for Wednesday’s hearing backed out for fear of retaliation.”
Grassley’s last line indicates how serious this is.
The GAO found that a major problem is the limited list of officials designated to receive whistleblower complaints. If FBI employees report waste, fraud or governmental abuse to supervisors not on that list, those employees have no protection against management retaliation, such as being demoted or fired.
The “FBI is the only segment of the federal government that requires whistleblowers to report problems to a handful of high-ranking personnel in order to be shielded from retaliation,” Grassley said.
The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment on the report for this column, but Justice officials told the GAO they do not plan to expand the list of people who can receive whistleblower complaints “in part because of their concerns about the additional resources that would be needed to handle a possible increase in complaints.”
The GAO reviewed 62 FBI whistleblower retaliation allegations between 2009 and 2013 and found that Justice closed 17, more than 27 percent, because they were made to someone not on the list, even if that someone was the employee’s supervisor. It sounds like the kind of technicality the FBI would vehemently oppose in a court case.
“By dismissing potentially legitimate complaints in this way, DOJ could deny some whistleblowers access to recourse, permit retaliatory activity to go uninvestigated, and create a chilling effect for future whistleblowers,” the GAO said.
More than chilled, Turner was frozen out, only to be vindicated when it was too late. That points to another problem the GAO identified — the time it takes to resolve some complaints. Almost 25 percent took up to four years. Turner’s took much longer.
In 2002, Turner, based in Minneapolis, blew the whistle on colleagues who allegedly stole items from Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
How did her bosses respond to this disturbing charge of desecration of hallowed ground?
“After making this whistleblower disclosure, she was given a ‘does not meet expectations’ rating, placed on leave, and given a notice of proposed removal,” the GAO reported.
Like a tenacious FBI agent, Turner fought back and won. But not until 2013, when the Justice Department ruled in her favor — more than a decade after her complaint.
Yet the Justice Department provided her no justice, because the department ruled she could have her job back when she was too old to take it. Turner said she was 62 when the department made the ruling, five years beyond the FBI’s mandatory retirement age.
“We had reached the end of the line and got zero, nothing,” she said in an interview. “It cost me my career, and I got zippo.”
Her lawyer, Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said Turner continues to fight for back pay in federal court.
Whistleblower proceedings “going on forever . . . totally undermined the program,” he said. “It’s made a farce of it.”
The program for FBI whistleblowers was established by the Justice Department and does not use the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board, avenues provided to most federal employees. To improve its whistleblowing program, Justice has hired an additional part-time staffer to cut case processing times, developed a mediation program, imposed stricter time frames to resolve complaints and streamlined procedures, according to the report. “However, DOJ officials have limited plans to assess the impacts of these actions,” the GAO said.
In any case, none of this helps Turner. The changes also weren’t enough to make the committee’s potential witness feel protected.
“If any whistleblower came to me, I’d say run for the hills,” Turner said. “They will destroy you if you are exposed.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.