By ANDREA ACOSTA
The Office of Special Counsel's (OSC) presentation of Public Servant of the Year awards to three whistleblowers last week represented a turning-point event for the organization and its mission. Following a history of problems, but under new leadership, the OSC made significant progress towards restoring the agency. This event hopefully symbolized a culture-changing statement by publicly awarding those individuals who are so often persecuted for speaking out against wrongdoing.
James Parsons, Mary Ellen Spera, and William Zwicharowski, the whistleblowers honored at today’s event, were recognized for their choice to take a stand against the gross mishandling of soldier remains in the U.S. Port Mortuary in Dover, Delaware. They risked their jobs, their reputations, and their very livelihoods in deciding to blow the whistle, but, as Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) put it during the ceremony, this particular whistleblower story “is a story that ends well.” Thanks to these three individuals and the work of the OSC, procedures at the U.S. Port Mortuary are being addressed and improved. It’s important that the families of our fallen soldiers can have confidence knowing that their loved one’s remains will be handled with care and respect. It’s gratifying that the whistleblowers that put themselves at risk have been honored.
The award event featured remarks from the entire congressional delegation of Delaware. Senators Carper and Coons and Representative John Carney each spoke of the selfless courage the whistleblowers demonstrated in placing the public good above their own personal concerns. Sen. Coons, for instance, pointed out how they had “chosen integrity” over what was easy. Sen. Carper echoed this sentiment with his definition of true leadership, learned from his veteran father: “true leaders,” he said, “are those who possess the courage to keep out of step when everyone else is playing the wrong tune.” In addition, Sen. Carper offered his heartfelt thanks to Parsons, Spera, and Zwicharowski for “speaking truth to power.” Rep. Carney found himself “humbled by the courage of the individuals here who did a great service for our country.”
These earnest words and ceremony of honor stand in stark contrast to the usual culture of government suppression and maltreatment of whistleblowers in the workplace. Hopefully it will send a message throughout the federal government. It’s a testament to the good work of Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner and her dedicated staff at the OSC.
The Washington Post recently ran an article on the new and improved OSC under Lerner, citing her strong endorsement of the new Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and continued determination to help those who come forward against fraud, waste, and abuse in the government. In a touching response to this determination and the progress demonstrated by Lerner and her staff, the audience offered a full standing ovation to the OSC staff who worked on the Dover cases– truly a poignant moment given that some of them are survivors of the Bloch-run OSC where they were prevented from fulfilling the mission of the agency.
Perhaps the most moving moment, however, came when whistleblower Zwicharowski spoke. After thanking several individuals for their help, he turned to the OSC staff and said:
“You saved my job, and you probably saved my life.”
Andrea Acosta is a POGO intern