The Government Doesn’t Punish Whistleblowers; It Just Shoves Them In Closets Or Sends Them To The Basement

From the not-punitive,-just-really,-really-bitchy dept
The Government Doesn't Punish Whistleblowers; It Just Shoves Them In Closets Or Sends Them To The Basement

Image Credits: 20th Century Fox

by Tim Cushing | Tech Dirt | August 8, 2014


More evidence of the US government’s fabled whistleblower protections at work. While laws may prohibit direct retaliation for speaking up about misconduct, there’s nothing in place to prevent an agency from taking a useful employee and Milton-ing them into irrelevance.

[Paula] Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

Now, the good news is that investigators are still trying to determine whether this reassignment to the depths of the hospital was retaliatory. The bad news is that even if they can prove this, there’s likely nothing that can be done about it.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

And, of course, this isn’t an isolated incident. Another contractor interviewed spent 16 months in a basement office after alerting regulators about improper radioactive material processing. An Air Force chemist found himself sweeping the floor of his basement office after uncovering mismanagement. As for Pedene, her whistleblowing helped uncover an $11 million budget shortfall, one that led to the voluntary resignation of hospital’s director. Instead of adding another accolade to her active 20 years of service, Pedene’s office was moved as far away as possible from the rest of the hospital and her responsibilities almost completely eliminated.

Those in charge used this minor breach as the supposed justification for moving her downstairs.

The chief accusation was that Pedene had let her husband upload photos of a VA-sponsored Veterans Day parade onto her work computer. He was helping her finish a PowerPoint presentation she was working on. He was a non-VA employee, working on a VA computer.

The hospital refuses to address any questions about Pedene’s situation, claiming it was a decision made by her previous boss — one that was forced out during the recent investigation that uncovered the use of bogus wait lists to cover up how long patients were waiting for treatment.

The scant legal protections Pedene can avail herself of look much better on paper than in practice.

In theory, it is illegal to make the basement into a bureaucratic purgatory. In 1994, for instance, Congress prohibited agencies from making significant changes in a whistleblower’s “working conditions” as punishment for speaking out.

But in practice, the situation is murkier. Some courts have said moving an employee to a basement or closet usually amounts to punishment. But others have said this is a decision that should be made case by case. How nice is the basement office? How big is the closet?

What makes this tougher for the people being relegated to basements or closets is there are no easily-definable damages to be pursued — which makes it unlikely that many lawyers would be interested in pursuing the case. And so, the government gets away with it. It can still pretend it’s looking out for whistleblowers while ignoring those who have simply been removed from their visible positions and offices and stripped of their responsibilities. All this does is guarantee that more and more malfeasance will be the result of very public leaks rather than issues that could be handled internally with a minimal of PR damage.

The government likes to actively punish leakers but it doesn’t treat those who go through proper channels much better. It would apparently rather have abuse and misconduct remain out of sight and out of mind and remain secure in its delusion that its agencies are staffed with good people doing good work.


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