Imagine you blow the whistle on a federal agency because it’s guilty of misconduct — then find yourself banished to a jail cell while you’re still working there.
The Justice Department is being accused of unfairly punishing a whistleblower in exactly that way.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel released a report on Tuesday alleging that managers at the Federal Bureau of Prisons retaliated against at least two whistleblowers. The individuals had attempted to report misconduct and wasted tax dollars to their superiors.
One whistleblower, Linda Thomas, filed a complaint alleging her boss was trying to move his entire staff to an office closer to his home in the Chicago suburbs. The supervisor responded by attempting to force her to work in a converted jail cell without a computer, desk or phone, she alleges. One day before she was scheduled to move to the cell, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to let her stay in her existing office. She was eventually transferred to what the Special Counsel calls “an appropriate work space” at a different location.
The second whistleblower, Julia Landucci, a Minnesota-based employee, reported misconduct and management issues within her agency’s substance-abuse program, including a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. In this case, Landucci was removed from overseeing a drug abuse program and was referred for a mental health exam. Then her supervisor attempted to exile her to a tiny office — one that was roughly one-sixth of the size of her old office. What’s worse, the Special Counsel maintained that Landucci’s new office was conveniently situated right next to another employee against whom she had filed workplace violence and discrimination cases.
The Office of Special Counsel ultimately stepped in before the bureau could move the workers into their newly assigned workstations. They were also able to switch office locations to resolve the issue.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the allegations. The Special Counsel’s report says that the Bureau of Prisons leadership has cooperated with its investigations and has agreed to include whistleblower topics in its training sessions for new prison wardens.
The latest charges of whistleblower retaliation represent a new strike against the Justice Department, which federal auditors say is the worst agency for whistleblowers. Last month, the Government Accountability Office reported that the FBI doesn’t have any real protections in place for employees who report wrongdoing.
The auditors said the Justice Department currently rejects nearly 90 percent of complaints by FBI employees who fear retaliation for coming forward with information about misconduct within their department. Between 2009 and 2013, 55 of the 62 complaints reviewed by the GAO were rejected.
That finding was the subject of a hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary last month, where lawmakers grilled FBI officials for their treatment of whistleblowers.
“Whistleblowers are kind of treated like a skunk at a picnic, and I hope you’ll do all you can to reverse that,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, told FBI Associate Deputy Director Kevin Perkins.
The allegations against Justice’s treatment of whistleblowers come at a time when the government claims it is cracking down on retaliation. Lawmakers and agencies have proposed new whistleblower protections designed to encourage federal workers to come forward if they witness wrongdoing.
The government has for years offered financial incentives to whistleblowers, including millions of dollars to expose tax cheats at the IRS. Coming forward, however, can present a high risk of retaliation. For now, it seems the protections have not prevented retaliation from taking place.
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