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Washington insiders expose own agencies

From EPA to Park Service, whistleblowers raise policy questions in a tense election year.

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With such controversies as a backdrop, a bipartisan group in Congress is pushing to strengthen whistleblower protections, an effort opposed by the Bush administration. Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989 and strengthened it in 1994.

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But critics say the law has failed to protect federal workers because of a series of judicial decisions that have undermined its effectiveness. "The reality today is that government workers who expose wrongdoing have no legal protections against being fired or facing retaliation," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a private organization in Washington that investigates government wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, for example, Teresa Chambers, chief of the United States Park Police Force, was fired for suggesting in a newspaper interview that her unit lacked the resources to protect national parks, monuments, and other sites around Washington at a time of heightened security concerns. "We will vigorously appeal this initial decision," says Richard Condit, Ms. Chambers' lawyer. "Public servants should not be fired because they tell the truth."

In August, the Interior Department's inspector general reported that many employees there fear reprisal for speaking up. A survey of some 25,000 department employees found that nearly half of those who responded (more than 6,000) "believe that discipline is taken on the basis of whom the person knows rather than what they did."

"Discipline is administered inconsistently and unfairly throughout the department," the inspector general reported.

The Justice Department's inspector general, meanwhile, is investigating several whistleblower complaints by FBI agents who say they suffered retaliation for reporting weaknesses in terrorism investigations following the Sept. 11 attacks.

In another controversial area, the US Commission on Civil Rights is holding until after the election, but conspicuously keeping on its website, a 181-page staff report concluding that the Bush administration "has neither exhibited leadership on pressing civil rights issues nor taken actions that matched his words."

"President Bush seldom speaks about civil rights, and when he does, it is to carry out official duties, not to promote initiatives or plans for improving opportunity," the report asserts. "Even when he publicly discusses existing barriers to equality and efforts to overcome them, the administration's words and deeds often conflict."

While acknowledging that the president "has assembled a commendably diverse cabinet and moderately diverse judiciary," the report's authors note that "many of his nominees and appointees do not support civil rights protections."

"The effect may be eventual weakening of civil rights laws." Republicans on the eight-member commission - evenly divided between the major political parties - argued foul play.

"I think it's an unfair report," said commissioner Jennifer Braceras. "I think it's a politically biased report, and I think its release at this time is politically motivated."