Whistleblowing can be risky business.
Despite all the official-sounding support for federal employees who report waste, fraud and abuse, they risk punishment when they do. Government protections can work, however, and sometimes whistleblowers who suffered retaliation get some justice — back pay, for example — for time missed through suspensions or firing.
But complete justice frequently is elusive. Rarely, it seems, do supervisors who retaliate, or their bosses, feel any real consequences for their actions. That’s what makes news about discipline against two senior officials at the Energy Department’s Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) so remarkable.
Administrator Bill Drummond and Chief Operating Officer Anita Decker were placed on leave following allegations of retaliation against employees who cooperated with the agency’s inspector general (IG). He was looking into allegations about veterans’ hiring.
“The OIG [Office of Inspector General] is currently conducting a review of allegations that Bonneville engaged in inappropriate hiring practices,” Energy IG Gregory H. Friedman told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week. “Specifically, it has been alleged that the rights of applicants for Federal positions were violated, most notably applicants entitled to veterans’ preference. During the course of this review, as a result of several interviews, we learned that Bonneville employees who had raised questions to their management regarding violations of personnel practices may have been subjected to retaliation. . . . We found these allegations to be troubling.”
So troubling that on July 16 Friedman issued a “management alert,” which is used for urgent situations.
Friedman said his office told Energy officials that “all ongoing disciplinary actions” should be suspended and workers who had been suspended or fired “should be temporarily restored to their positions.”
Energy’s top management agreed.
It ordered Bonneville “to take no adverse personnel actions against employees,” Friedman said, “and to immediately convey to all Bonneville employees that they could cooperate freely with the OIG and other investigations without fear of retaliation.”
Not only is it unusual for bosses like Drummond and Decker to be investigated (no findings of innocence or guilt yet), but Decker reluctantly told her story to the committee.
“I would like to say at the outset that I would never knowingly allow BPA to implement policies or practices violating the federal policy supporting veterans hiring,” she said, mentioning several relatives who served in uniform.
BPA’s improper hiring practices, which resulted from an incorrect interpretation of hiring procedures, stopped in May 2012, according to Decker. “In regard to veterans,” she said, “we made a regrettable mistake, we stopped making the mistake over a year ago and I want be part of making this right.”
“With respect to allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers,” Decker said she was aware of some of the actions, but “I am not the decision maker.”
The personnel decisions in each case, she added, involved a manager who “worked with an Employee Relations Specialist and legal counsel, both of whom have special training and a duty to immediately report retaliation.”
The training might be special, but not adequate.
That also could apply to Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mary L. Kendell, Interior’s deputy IG, sent a stinging letter in July complaining about “an unreasonable and inappropriate response regarding the discipline of two Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) supervisors who engaged in scientific misconduct and apparently retaliated against three FWS employees” in 2012.
The retaliation included loss of pay and change of duties. She specifically cited FWS Director Dan Ashe as one of the senior leaders who failed to take appropriate action. Ashe said he takes the issue seriously and “our paramount goal is to ensure that the corrective actions we have taken and will implement going forward are effective, appropriate and enduring. . . . I’m grateful to the employees who raised these concerns.”
But Kendell’s letter said the retaliation against the employees “appear to have been taken in direct relationship to the complainants raising concern about scientific integrity issues. It is our understanding that action has not been taken to reimburse the employees for the loss of pay and we believe one of the complainants has not been returned to her original assignments and duty station.”
“Months of pointed discussions and stern warnings . . . ,” she continued, “have not resulted in any formal and permanent action against the offending supervisors. To date, the whistleblowers have received no relief and, in the public, appear to have committed wrongdoing. In fact, recent actions taken by FWS management regarding the offending supervisors appear to have elevated their status and do not appear to be disciplinary in nature.”
That last comment is right in line with the observations of whistleblower advocates.
Managers who retaliate against whistleblowers often escape punishment, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, because “many whistleblower cases settle without any finding of fault” and “many senior managers are in a position to retire at full pension without financial penalty.”
“In our experience,” he said, “it is quite rare for retaliating supervisors or managers to be disciplined. In fact, we often see them promoted since they were serving the institutional powers-that-be by quashing internal, and sometimes embarrassing dissent.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.