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

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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Comments on “The Government Doesn't Punish Whistleblowers; It Just Shoves Them In Closets Or Sends Them To The Basement”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Well, it would be PD if the government knew about it.

However, if you did the work on your own device (be it electronic or dead-tree) and forged the timestamps (or omitted them) they’d have a hard time proving you did it on the job. They also might be too embarrassed to try to claim any rights, because that would mean admitting that they hadn’t noticed that you’d been doing so little official work for so long, with potentially unfortunate consequences for their budget.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I thought about it, I wouldn’t mind getting privacy and free money. You can always turn your stay into something productive. I’d simply start studying to get the hell out of the place to a new one. Or simply study for leisure and tinker with some personal entrepreneurship (aka: my own business). Sounds like you can make an opportunity out of it if you want.

Still, it’s a despicable move…

bob says:

Re: Re: Re:

sounds great on paper but you have to remember that if you do development of an idea at work then your employer would own part of your idea too. Similar to how Keith Alexander claims he discovered something after leaving office instead of claiming he developed his “idea” while in office.

If you get training at work that can be used eleswhere then there is no problem, just be sure to work on your idea outside of work and have documentation to back that up if the company tries to claim partial ownership.

If anything is developed by people in government then the government owns it not the person.

Andyroo says:


Instead of approaching management and trying to get the fraud or mismanagement sorted out maybe people should just send a letter with all the evidence to newspapers until they the government start rewarding them and supporting them, not punishing them. As soon as a whistle-blower is isolated the government should be held responsible and those making the decision to do so fired and charged with abuse of their power by the government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Or they just end up mysteriously dead these last few decades.

Take the reporter Michael Hastings who had his car blow up in a rather “unlikely” way.
Or the author of a 9/11 conspiracy book Philip Marshall who apparently shot his family then “shot his dog” then shot himself.
The BP oil spill whistleblowers that all ended up dead I think there was 9-10 of them that just decided to kill themselves one after another

Aaron Swartz “hung himself”

All these whistleblowers that killed themselves look a lot more like murders.

John85851 (profile) says:

Not doing anything at work isn't fun

I think there’s a big point that everyone’s missing: most people go to work for the challenge of doing the job and to feel like they’re doing something productive with their lives. Exactly how long do you think you’ll last getting paid to be bored all day?

And if you think you can surf the web (and look at porn), think again. You’re still on the company’s network which may block all non-business sites (including Facebook, YouTube, personal email). And like other posters have said, if they catch you going to porn sites, that’s a reason to fire you. Plus, your phone may not get a connection in the basement.

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