News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Whistling in the Wind

It's gotten so bad for whistleblowers in the Bush era that the federal agency designed to protect them has whistleblowers of its own.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Gabe Bruno is a 29-year veteran of the Federal Aviation Administration. A dedicated, faithful, and -- in retrospect, he believes -- "naive" public servant, Bruno learned the hard way that blowing the whistle within the federal government is at best, a futile endeavor, and at worst, a career-destroying choice. He agreed to share his story with AlterNet under the safeguards of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

In 1998, Bruno, a field manager at the FAA's Orlando, Fla., Flight Standards District Office, was assigned to oversee safety standards during the merger between Valujet and AirTran, shortly after the former airline suffered a tragic accident that killed all 110 passengers on board. In the aftermath of the Valujet crash, the FAA carried out a 90-day safety review and created a new inspection program for all airlines to comply with. To Bruno's amazement, however, the FAA never applied this new program to AirTran (which had absorbed Valujet) itself. Bruno made numerous attempts to address the problem, but was "actively denied" by the FAA.

Meanwhile, in a separate incident, it came to light that over 1,000 FAA-certified mechanics had fraudulently obtained their credentials -- literally buying "A" grades on a paper certification test from a long-time FAA-designated examiner. After the examiner was criminally prosecuted and convicted, Bruno demanded that all mechanics be retested. This time, Bruno required mechanics to demonstrate hands-on skills on real airplanes; 75 percent failed. Yet, in the spring of 2001, Bruno's newly appointed superiors cancelled his re-examination program, offering scant rationale for the decision, and repeatedly rebuffed his attempts to re-install the program.

Fearing a repeat of the 1996 tragedy, he requested a face-to-face meeting with FAA Associate Administrator Nicholas Sabotini. "Instead of taking my concerns seriously and making the necessary changes, he treated me as some sort of disgruntled employee," said Bruno. "Next thing I know, after 26 years of outstanding performance evaluations, I've lost my management job." Bruno, who had spent over half of his career in management, was re-assigned to a lower-level runway safety position. He now works from home, isolated from his colleagues, "where I can voice my concerns but no one can hear me," he said.

After failing to correct the problems "from the inside, like a good soldier," Bruno took his fight to the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) -- an independent federal agency responsible for aiding and protecting whistleblowers within the government. Initially, there were signs of hope. Elaine Kaplan, the Clinton-appointed special counsel found "substantial likelihood" that Bruno's case had merit and ordered the inspector general (IG) of the Department of Transportation to carry out an investigation. The IG found no wrongdoing within the FAA, despite the fact that Bruno had provided a huge amount of documentary evidence to support his claims.

Kaplan demanded a re-investigation after Bruno provided point-by-point rebuttals to the IG's findings. Again, the IG reported that they had found no problems. "I could tell that the IG was pretty experienced at this, that there were a lot of midnight-oil meetings behind closed doors where people were saying, 'How are we going to respond to this, how are we going to respond to that?'" said Bruno. "None of my documentation changed, but their stories seemed to be evolving as the investigation went on."

But Kaplan remained convinced that Bruno's case was meritorious, ordering yet another investigation. By now, though, it was 2003, and Kaplan's five-year tenure as special counsel had expired. President Bush appointed Scott Bloch -- then deputy director of Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives -- to replace her and, soon after, everything would change.

All of a sudden, no one would take Bruno's calls at the OSC. When the IG's fourth report came back and dismissed Bruno's charges, he once again provided a comprehensive and detailed written rebuttal. Yet, no one at the OSC -- with which he had been closely working for months -- responded to his letters or emails, and his requests to meet Bloch in person were never answered. The OSC closed the case, failing to address Bruno's claims of far-reaching corruption and coverups, and determined that any alleged wrongdoing on the part of the FAA was unintentional. Bruno's first charge -- that the FAA's post-Valujet safety program had not been applied to AirTran -- was completely ignored. And although the OSC asserted that the fraudulently certified engineers should be retested, it made no mention of requiring hands-on examination -- the very core of Bruno's complaint. "Basically, they misrepresented and soft-pedaled on everything that was wrong about the FAA," said Bruno.

The silencing of Gabe Bruno and the whitewashing of FAA corruption is far from an aberration; under the tenure of Scott Bloch, such treatment has become standard practice. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), whistleblowers are coming forward in record numbers, yet the number of whistleblowers who have been helped by the OSC has plummeted.

Since Bloch took office, over 1,000 whistleblower complaints -- many leveling serious charges of government corruption and incompetence, including allegations of misconduct within FEMA before the Katrina disaster -- have been summarily dismissed. In the words of Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, the OSC has become "a plumber's unit for the Bush administration, plugging leaks, blocking investigations, and discrediting sources."

One of the first orders Bloch gave his staff, according to a former OSC employee, was to not call whistleblowers upon receiving written disclosures of corruption and abuse, In previous years, OSC staffers would directly contact whistleblowers to hear details and discern whether the cases merited further investigation. This part of the process was crucial, explained the former OSC staffer, because many of the whistleblowers had filed their complaints without guidance from attorneys and thus often failed to present information critical to their cases. But Bloch ordered staffers to immediately dismiss any cases deemed ambiguous or lacking in information. "I'd never seen anything like this in my life," said the former staffer. "If he had whistleblowers' interests at heart, he wouldn't be telling his staff not to call whistleblowers back." In fact, according to PEER, Bloch even authorized summer interns who hadn't even completed law school to make the judgment call on whistleblower complaints, almost all of which were rejected.

A further look into Bloch's record at the OSC reveals a bizarre litany of transgressions. As David S. Bernstein reported in the Boston Phoenix (" Bush's House Homophobe"), Bloch outraged gay rights advocates in February of 2004 when he removed any mention of sexual-orientation discrimination law from the OSC's website. Bloch, a devout Catholic with ties to the stridently anti-homosexual Claremont Institute, claimed that homosexuals were not a "protected class," radically reinterpreting a federal policy in place since the Nixon era.

Bloch has stacked the OSC with graduates of Ave Maria, an ultraconservative Catholic law school in Michigan, and signed the former headmaster of his son's Catholic high school to a no-bid consulting contract (a crony hire that flies in the face of the very anti-nepotism laws Bloch is also required to enforce as special counsel, says Ruch). And despite dismissing hundreds of seemingly valid whistleblower complaints, Bloch aggressively defended Richard Sternberg -- a Smithsonian research associate who supposedly faced retaliation for publishing an article in defense of Intelligent Design -- even though the OSC had absolutely no jurisdiction over the matter because Sternberg was not actually a government employee.

Bloch's behavior raised more than a few eyebrows at the OSC. But when staffers began to complain about his abuses to the media and advocacy organizations like PEER, Bloch began to silence and retaliate against whistleblowers from within the OSC itself. First, he issued an officewide gag order. Then, on Jan. 6, 2005, Bloch ordered 12 of the office's hundred-person staff, who were actual or perceived whistleblowers (two of whom were openly gay), to be reassigned to different regional offices. Most were ordered to move to a new office in Detroit. Offering no explanation for the move, Bloch gave staffers weeks to decide whether to uproot their lives, or alternatively, be fired. Ten of the 12 either resigned or were fired.

The former staffer I spoke with was one of these 10. Having entered the OSC under Elaine Kaplan -- an open lesbian who publicly criticized Bloch's homophobic actions -- the staffer now realizes he was "tagged as a dead man" from the beginning by Bloch. The employee, who, like Gabe Bruno, was routinely praised for his excellence on the job, learned that in Bush's universe, only the incompetent and the yes-men are rewarded.

"My division was the most productive for three years in a row. But for me and many of my co-workers it seemed like, because we did a good job and helped the agency to be more effective, we got punished," the former staffer told me. "He hurt so many innocent people who worked there, including young people in their 20s and 30s who did nothing but a fantastic job, and people with families. Sure, we've all got new jobs now, but not all of us are necessarily working jobs that we want to be at. He turned our lives upside down, and many of us have not recovered."

Ruch says the "the ironies run so deep" at the OSC under Bloch that the office has become, in effect, "an irony-free zone." But is Bloch merely a "bad apple," or does the problem lie with the OSC as an institution?

According to Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Bloch has "disgraced the office, denigrating it to irrelevance," but is far from the worst special counsel he's seen since the OSC was created. It quickly became clear that the OSC, born in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1979, would never have substantial power to protect whistleblowers. When the first special counsel, Patrick Swygert, made a name for himself by protecting minorities who had been victims of racism within the federal government, Congress slashed the OSC's budget. The office was forced to lay off 90 percent of its employees by 1980, and the message became clear to future special counsels.

Swygert's successors, Alex Kozinski and William O'Connor then turned the office into a "Trojan horse," says Devine, literally sharing disclosures with accused managers, who would in turn engage in retaliatory action and purge whistleblowers from the federal government. In 1989, the Whistleblower Protection Act became law, a measure that was supposed to reform the office, but the OSC remained headed by political appointees who knew that their real role was to make the administration look as good as possible. Clinton's appointee, Kaplan, was the one exception; Ruch and Devine refer to her tenure as the "Golden Years of the OSC," during which several high-profile whistleblowers were protected. Whistleblower advocacy groups urged Bush to extend Kaplan's appointment after her five-year tenure expired. They got Bloch instead.

Having apparently broken almost every law he was appointed by President Bush to enforce -- including retaliating against whistleblowers from inside his own office -- Bloch is your typical Bush thug in charge of a federal agency. This is a pattern of behavior we've seen across the federal government: from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the Environmental Protection Agency. And like the rest of the Bush bureaucrats, Bloch continues to face little to no repercussions for what he's done. When a Senate committee held an oversight hearing to investigate some of the allegations levied against Bloch last May, Bloch defended his record, arguing that twice as many whistleblower complaints had advanced during the first year of his tenure than under any year of Kaplan's. The former staffer I spoke with explained that Bloch had blatantly fudged these numbers; in fact, the figures only represented one 30-day period, not an entire year, as Bloch had claimed. Requests to interview Bloch for this article were not returned.

In March 2005, the law offices of Lynne Bernabei and Debra Katz, acting on behalf of the dismissed OSC staffers, demanded an investigation by the Council on Integrity and Efficiency. Bloch deliberately stalled the process for months, but finally, in October Bernabei and Katz received a letter confirming that Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland of the Office of Personnel Management would carry out an investigation. Yet, according to Katz, the process remains in limbo and the investigation is going nowhere.

"I think Mr. Bloch has been allowed to act with impunity by the administration," says Katz. "It's not just bureaucratic inertia. It is, in effect, a nod to Bloch that he can continue to operate as he has." It is a safe bet that Bloch will continue his work, unhindered, and that the OSC will remain a "plumbers unit" for the next three years. For the time being, there is little hope for federal whistleblowers.

So what does Tom Devine recommend for those who are considering blowing the whistle at the federal level? "Well," he said with a sigh, "basically we tell them that they've got to out-Machiavelli the Machiavellis. If they simply relied on their legal rights, they'd be engaging in professional suicide. So we've worked to develop the tactics of helping whistleblowers commit the truth and get away with it." Under the current laws, the odds are appalling: Since 1995, the Federal Court of Appeals has ruled against whistleblowers 119 out of 120 times.

Asked if he'd do it all over again, Gabe Bruno said, "It's a hard question because it has been a really rough road for me and my family. Intellectually, no, but emotionally, I had to do it -- I couldn't just sit there with all this information, knowing that this stuff was brewing, and keep my mouth shut. This was about public safety, human lives -- I could not do it. But I would tell someone else in my position, weigh carefully what you're doing, because it is going to disrupt your career at a minimum and destroy it at a maximum. So you better weigh your conscience seriously."

Sam Graham-Felsen is co-author with The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel of the weekly online feature, Sweet Victories .