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March 2, 2005

Exposing Corruption Doesn't Pay, Gov't Watchdog Warns

by William Fisher

Amid charges that hundreds of whistleblower cases may have been arbitrarily dismissed, the U.S. Justice Department has admitted that it retroactively classified information that posed no threat to national security.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the admission could help former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) translator Sibel Edmonds, who has filed a lawsuit challenging her termination.

Meanwhile, the ousted chief of the US Park Police (USPP), Teresa Chambers, filed suit in federal district court charging that the Department of Interior, parent organization of the USPP, " illegally destroyed documents showing charges used as the basis to remove her as last year were trumped up."

The allegations of unlawful dismissal of federal whistleblower complaints by the US Special Counsel (OSC), who is charged with protecting the rights of government workers reporting fraud, waste or abuse, came from an advocacy group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"The special counsel appears to have taken action in very few, if any, of these cases and has yet to represent a single whistleblower in an employment case," according to Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

"If the office of special counsel under Scott Bloch is not helping whistleblowers then there is no reason for the office to continue to exist," he told IPS.

Bloch, who was appointed by President Bush 13 months ago, defended the performance of his office by pointing to a sharp drop in backlogged whistleblower cases.

PEER said figures released by Bloch reveal that in the past year the Office of Special Counsel has dismissed or otherwise disposed of 600 whistleblower disclosures and "made 470 claims of retaliation disappear." Bloch says that another 30 retaliation cases remain in the backlog.

"The 600 disclosure cases that Bloch has admitted to the Washington Post were dismissed are all instances where civil servants came forward to report waste, fraud and abuse yet OSC decided that there was no need to investigate," Ruch said.

He does not believe that OSC "is not supposed to investigate these disclosures; OSC is simply supposed to make a surface determination as to whether these disclosures merit investigation."

He added: "Dismissing all 600 cases and deciding that not one deserved investigation (because, in the words of the OSC spokesperson, they were all 'minor matters or issues previously investigated') stretches credulity."

"Bloch has yet to announce a single case where he has ordered an investigation into the employee's charges," PEER charges.

"In order to speed dismissals, Bloch instituted a rule forbidding his staff from contacting a whistleblower if their disclosure was deemed incomplete or ambiguous. Instead, OSC would simply dismiss the matter. As a result, hundreds of whistleblowers never had a chance to justify why their cases had merit."

"Without the special counsel, the only way that whistleblower disclosures are officially investigated is when the agency decides on its own to investigate itself," Ruch added.

Rep. Waxman and Rep. Danny Davis, the ranking Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee and its Civil Service Subcommittee, respectively, had originally written to ask for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office into "Bloch's forced removal of OSC staff, hiring of cronies and failure to answer Freedom of Information Act requests."

Bloch responded that the "forced removals" were part of a reorganization, which would send 12 career OSC employees to new assignments in other cities "to improve performance, not punish any employees."

The Justice Department's admission of having retroactively classified documents may, according to the ACLU, help Sibel Edmonds in her case that she was unlawfully dismissed from her job at the FBI.

"The Justice Department's long-overdue admission goes to the core of the ACLU's allegations that the government is going all out to silence whistleblowers to protect itself from political embarrassment," said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson, who is representing the former FBI translator.

"The government is taking extreme steps to shield itself while gambling with our safety," Beeson said in a statement.

In May 2004, the Justice Department retroactively classified information presented two years earlier by the FBI to the Senate Judiciary Committee during two unclassified briefings regarding Edmunds, who had repeatedly reported serious security breaches and misconduct in the agency's translation program.

Last week, the government told a federal appeals court that the Edmonds suit should not be allowed to proceed because it would cause "significant damage to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

Lawyers for the government said the suit could not continue without disclosing privileged and classified information.

Edmonds' case was dismissed last July after then Attorney-General John Ashcroft invoked the so-called "state secrets privilege." It was at that time that the Justice Department retroactively classified the two-year old briefings in an attempt to bolster its "state secrets" claim. The ACLU is representing Edmonds in her appeal.

The Justice Department's Inspector General concluded that Edmonds was fired for reporting misconduct, and that her allegations, if true, could have potentially damaging consequences for the FBI.

The ACLU says the Edmonds case is "part of a larger pattern by the government to silence employees who expose national security blunders." It claims a number of other national security whistleblowers "were vilified and retaliated against." The Justice Department's admission of retroactive classification came as a result of a separate lawsuit filed by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an advocacy group for transparency in government, against the Justice Department. The suit charges that the retroactive classification in Edmonds' case was unlawful and violated her right to free speech.

In a separate development, Teresa Chambers, former chief of the US Park Police, filed suit alleging that the Department of Interior (DOI) illegally destroyed documents showing charges used as the basis to remove her as last year were faked, according to the complaint released by PEER.

Chambers is suing to force the release of exculpatory documents or, if they are not produced, to obtain damages to compensate for their illegal destruction.

The Chambers suit was filed under the Privacy Act, which entitles individuals to see records about them maintained by federal agencies, particularly records created as part of a federal employee's personnel file. She is also seeking reinstatement. Her appeal is now before the US Merit Systems Protection Board.

Peer's Ruch summed up his view of the environment facing whistleblowers.

"The recent events at OSC, the Department of Justice, the failure of Congress to conduct meaningful oversight, and the repeal of civil service protection for half of the federal workforce (in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security) all add up to a perfect storm for whistleblowers – in which their chances of survival become remote, at best."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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