By DANA LIEBELSON
The Air Force may have failed to properly investigate and punish those responsible for the gruesome negligence at Port Mortuary--but fortunately, there's a new sheriff in town: Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. On Tuesday, her office presented the Air Force with a report concluding that Port Mortuary officials retaliated against the whistleblowers, and should receive appropriate disciplinary action for violating the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Four civilian employees at the mortuary alleged to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that they suffered retaliation for disclosing that human remains at Port Mortuary were being mishandled. The retaliation against them ran the usual whistleblower gamut: job termination, indefinite administrative leave, and suspensions.
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement supporting OSC’s report that “as an author of the Whistleblower Protection Act, I know the law is clear that it is not appropriate for a federal agency or official to retaliate against a whistleblower on the basis of a protected disclosure.”
The Air Force Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigated the allegations of retaliation, but the OIG report indicated that no laws were broken. After the report was released, the Air Force didn’t take any serious disciplinary action against the three senior officials who were responsible (one of whom allegedly tried to fire two of the whistleblowers).
As POGO reported in November, OSC stepped in independently because it didn’t think the Air Force investigation had gone far enough. We applauded OSC’s intervention as evidence that the agency was gaining confidence in exposing agency failings.
In the OSC’s press release, Lerner praised the whistleblowers for their courage and for coming forward, and said: “We expect the Air Force will now take appropriate steps to discipline the wrongdoers and deter future acts of retaliation.” The Air Force will also have to provide the whistleblowers all remedies as required under the Whistleblower Protection Act, which could include reinstatement, back pay, and damages such as attorney fees and costs.
Additionally, the press release states that if the Air Force does not respond, or responds in a way that OSC finds insufficient or unreasonable, OSC may pursue disciplinary action against civilian employees before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).
“Finally, we have a Special Counsel enforcing the law to protect federal whistleblowers,” said POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury. "The Air Force should take immediate action to provide justice to the whistleblowers and discipline the retaliators. As for others in government seeking to suppress disclosures of wrongdoing, take notice: whistleblower retaliation is illegal and there is a new, tough cop on the beat."
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Image via the Air Force.