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Military whistleblowers get little help if punished

By The Associated Press
11.03.08

WASHINGTON — Military whistleblowers might want to save their breath. The Pentagon inspector general, the internal watchdog for the Defense Department, hardly ever sides with service members who complain that they were punished for reporting wrongdoing, according to a review of cases by the Associated Press.

The inspector general's office rejected claims of retaliation and stood by the military in more than 90% of nearly 3,000 cases during the past six years. More than 73% were closed after only a preliminary review that relied on available documents and sources — often from the military itself — to determine whether a full inquiry was warranted.

The high rejection rates suggest scores of complaints aren't valid, that many whistleblowers are whiners who are prone to exaggeration. But critics, including a Republican senator, wonder whether many valid cases are dismissed before being carefully examined because of attitudes in the inspector general's office.

Indeed, a confidential government survey obtained by the Associated Press described a demoralized and ambivalent work force in the inspector general's office, people working "at a high level of risk." Investigators who handle reprisal complaints believe supervisors don't value their work, the survey found. That perception has a direct bearing on employees' performance and how long they stay with the office. The AP obtained a copy of the survey's results under the Freedom of Information Act.

Whistleblowing is risky business, particularly for those in uniform. They have fewer rights than their civilian counterparts and work in a culture where questioning leadership is frowned upon. Demotions, poor performance reports and letters of reprimand are commonly used to penalize or silence whistleblowers. Any one of these can derail even a promising career.

The AP has learned that the Justice Department is reviewing a reprisal case involving a Navy officer who challenged a recruiting policy in 2002 that favored white candidates over blacks and Hispanics. Jason Hudson was removed from his job overseeing more than 130 recruiters and received a negative performance evaluation.

The Navy eventually rescinded the disputed recruiting policy. But it said Hudson hadn't been punished for challenging it even though Hudson's attorney collected evidence indicating otherwise. In early 2003, Hudson asked the Pentagon inspector general for help. More than five years later, nothing has been done to challenge or reverse the Navy's decision.

"They are supposed to serve as the conscience of the Department of Defense. And they're not," said Hudson, adding that his views were his own and not the Navy's. "They don't have the ability or will to make things happen. They don't have any leverage."

Hudson was eventually promoted in November 2007 to lieutenant commander, the equivalent of an Army major. But the negative evaluation is still in his file and makes it unlikely he'll ever be promoted again.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime advocate for whistleblowers, conducted his own inquiry into Hudson's case over the past year and found serious problems.

"The evidence seems to indicate that your office did not ask the Navy one single substantive question about the way the Hudson investigation was being conducted," Grassley wrote in an Oct. 23 letter to Gordon Heddell, who was named acting Pentagon inspector general in July.

A spokesman for the inspector general, Gary Comerford, said Heddell requested the Justice Department's inquiry. He would not comment further.

Whistleblower reprisal cases are handled by a small team in the inspector general's office called Military Reprisal Investigations, or MRI. It performs the investigation or makes sure the military department in charge does it properly.

Nine out of 10 cases come from soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines. The rest involve defense contractors and Pentagon workers who aren't considered regular federal employees.

Just over 2,820 cases have been closed since October 2002. Yet in only 187 — or 6.6% — did the office find retaliation for whistleblowing.

"Good work from the Defense Department inspector general has been the exception, not the rule," said Jesselyn Radack, homeland security director at the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based public-interest group. "For whistleblowers in particular, that office has been a black hole."

The situation is only slightly better for whistleblowers who don't wear a uniform, according to statistics from the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that reviews most of the reprisal cases filed by civilian government employees.

Between 2002 and 2007 — the latest statistics available — the special counsel received nearly 4,500 reprisal complaints. In 334 of them, or 7.4%, the office ruled in favor of the whistleblower.

Even whistleblower-advocacy groups acknowledge some reprisal cases are bound to be dismissed because of misunderstandings or disagreements. But most whistleblowers don't take the step lightly.

"They understand the consequences of filing a complaint," said Adam Miles, an investigator with the Government Accountability Project.

Military reprisal complaints are supposed to be settled within 180 days. Yet over the past 10 years, the number of employees assigned to investigate such cases has dropped from 22 to 19 people while the workload has increased by 68%, according to a report to Congress. Without more employees, the report said, meeting the 180-day requirement will remain an elusive goal.

The government survey obtained by the AP was conducted in June by the Corporate Leadership Council, a business-research company in Arlington, Va. More than half of the nearly 1,500 employees in the inspector general's office responded.

Overall, the survey shows about a third of the work force is "disaffected," describing employees who are weak performers and who do as little work as possible. The bulk, nearly 66%, are classified as "agnostics." They don't shirk their work, but they don't go to great lengths, either. The rest, less than 5%, are "true believers" — the high performers completely dedicated to their jobs, according to the survey.

In August, Heddell formed a senior-level group to provide him with recommendations to improve the work environment. The office refused AP's request for a copy of the working group's report because it is using the document as part of the decision-making process.

Heddell, formerly the inspector general at the Labor Department, refused several interview requests.

"While I believe our organization has many strengths," he wrote in an Oct. 14 e-mail to office staff, "I also have significant concerns about its direction and focus."


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