Accuracy in Media

Whistleblowers recently won a victory of sorts against the U.S. Forest Service. A Washington advocacy group hailed the settlement of claims by a group of current and former Forest Service employees “a victory for stamina over bureaucratic intransigence.”

The Forest Service whistleblowers all worked at the Bighorn National Forest site in Wyoming. In 1994, they wrote a letter to the regional forest service director complaining about Bighorn’s supervisors. They claimed these supervisors had created a “hostile working environment” and alleged that they had committed a number of fiscal and management improprieties. Among these, according to their complaints, Bighorn managers allowed local ranchers to overgraze national forest land and permitted timber companies to raze habitats for protected and endangered species.

The whistleblowers also alleged a number of civil rights violations including sexual harassment. The whistleblowers complaints concluded that the Bighorn’s management was “not conducive to honesty, integrity, and hard work.” The Forest Service’s response was predictable. An AP wire story reports that the Forest Service initiated a pattern of intimidation and harassment against the whistleblowers common to most government whistleblowers cases.

Over a period of nine years, 44 employees at Bighorn complained about local managers. Thirty were subsequently forced out of the Forest Service. Others had their jobs eliminated, were reassigned to other Forest Service locations, and passed over for promotions. In 1997, a new supervisor mandated a massive reorganization of the Bighorn office. The whistleblowers’ lawyers say this was nothing more than an effort to purge the site of the remaining whistleblowers.

A settlement was finally achieved by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal agency that has the mission of protecting government whistleblowers. The Washington Post reported that eight employees will split $200,000 and have all pending disciplinary actions against them dropped. That’s $25,000 a piece for a decade of reprisals, stunted careers, firings, and even defamation. In the latter case, the Forest Service sought criminal charges against a whistleblower for moving a “bat house” 30 feet. The Forest Service later billed him personally for moving the bat house back to its original location.

And what about the managers who created the problems in the first place. The AP reports that three of the original four managers identified by the whistleblowers have been promoted and now work in Forest Service national headquarters in Washington. The fourth retired, pension intact, and has started a consulting business in Wyoming. The Forest Service refused to settle with the whistleblowers unless the agreement stipulated that no disciplinary action would be taken against these managers. The Office of Special Counsel refused to release the whistleblowers’ names. It said that they fear further retaliation by the Forest Service.

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