The national news media may not have thought so, but a conference of exceptional importance to protecting the integrity of government employees, who want to go a good job, took place in Washington D.C. at the end of March.
Composed of over 100 civil servants from environmental, wildlife and natural resource agencies, the conference was sponsored by a remarkable association of Forest Service Employees who are appalled by what they believe to be the pre-timber industry bias and illegality of the U.S. Forest Service.
Two thousand employees of the Forest Service joined this group of conscience and action in protest of the Service’s andoresement of massive clear-curring and other reckless, non-sustainable mismanagement of the nation’s (your) forests. In some forests, such as the Tongass in Alaska, the Forest Service spends ten times what it takes in royalties to build roads and other facilities for the giant private timber companies.
Twenty one years ago, we held a similar conference that invited what we called “ethical whistleblowers” from government and industry. There were plenty of these courageous governmental dissenters at last month’s gathering at Georgetown University.
At a news conference, they charged that their agencies which “manage U.S. forests, rangelands, air and water “were allowing political and corporate manipulation” to undermine the nation’s environmental laws. While each whistle-blower told a unique story, the common theme was that federal mismanagement is “threatening our air, soil, water and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.” Individuals who speak out against such abuses as government employees are at serious job risk and need legal protection to defend their rights to bring their conscience to work.
John Gill lost his job as an Air Force biologist, he believes, because he had uncovered evidence that violations of environmental regulations and gross waste of $350 million in tax dollars had ocurred at the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison Missile Program. This program was to hide Peacekeeper missilies inside railraod boxcars on commericial railroad tracks to conceal their location from the enemy.
The program is now being curtailed by the Defense Department and may be ended due to lack of need and its wasteful performance that has raised the ire of many from Wyomind ranchers to the General Accounting Office. As for Gill, who spoke out, he is appealing his case to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Yes, there is a federal whistleblower protection law but, even after its 1989 amendments, it is grossly inadequate to protect workplace conscience. A quick look at the Conference’s presentations supports this observation. They were full of advice about how to blow the whistle, how to protect the whistleblower, reform civil service and government ethics laws and how to organize support within the workplace for government employees.
The courage and plight of these civil servants is a microcosm of what often faces the millions of other civil servants at the local, state and federal levels. Knowing that speaking out is perilous to their jobs, many civil servants just put their time in “getting aong by going along.” A few are authentic moral heros. But a more protective legal environment for speaking up, for ethically blowing the whistle against the enormous subversion of good laws and all too familiar waste, fraud and abuse will bring out the best in many more public employees.
(More details can be obtained about the conference from the Government Accountability Project (GAP), 810 First Street, NW, Washington, DC 20002, or from the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, P.O. Box 11615, Eugene, Oregon, 97440).