When the United States Army Corps of Engineers had trouble proving that a proposed billion-dollar construction project on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers was worth the cost, it tackled the problem head-on: It got rid of the economist who brought them the bad news.
In general, flood control, irrigation, transportation, and recreation are positive values most people can agree on. But for years, environmentalists, budget hawks, and other critics have charged that the Army Corps is too cozy with the barge operators and agri-businesses (and their political patrons, including members of Congress) who benefit from replumbing natural waterways with dams and locks.
That was confirmed last week when the Army inspector general, following a 10-month investigation, reported that "institutional bias" had led the corps to favor large construction projects whether or not they made economic sense.
Investigators cited pressure by Corps leaders to increase the agency's budget - even if it meant distorting economic analysis.
If there is one hero in this story, it is Donald Sweeney. Dr. Sweeney is the senior Corps economist who blew the whistle on what he sees as "serious violations of rules, laws, and regulations at the highest levels of Corps management that could have resulted in gross fraud, waste, and abuse of federal resources." When, after five years of working on the plan, he reported his concerns to his superiors, Sweeney was taken off the project.
With help from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Sweeney took his complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency charged with protecting government whistle-blowers and investigating their allegations. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) presented the evidence to the Army which, in essence, acknowledged and confirmed Sweeney's allegations.
It's not easy, especially for career government employees, to challenge the massive bureaucracies for which they work. "It takes great courage and perseverance to come forward as Sweeney did, and to provide an honest perspective to investigators, as Sweeney's colleagues did, in cases where higher level officials and supervisors are accused of serious misconduct," says Elaine Kaplan, head of OSC.
Probably the most famous whistle-blower in recent decades was Daniel Ellsburg, the Defense Department civilian analyst who in 1971 passed the classified Pentagon Papers (documenting US involvement in Vietnam) to the press. Mr. Ellsburg was indicted, but the case was thrown out because of government misconduct.
Since then, protections for whistle-blowers have increased at both the state and federal level. At the same time, private advocacy groups have taken up their cause as well. PEER, headquartered in Washington with 13 chapters around the country, is one such organization. Another is Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, based in Eugene, Ore. Members of this group, most of them current and retired employees of government natural resource agencies, help spotlight practices that harm the environment or waste money.
Following up on revelations of wrongdoing is just as important as blowing the whistle. Top Pentagon civilians and Army officials are looking for ways to rein in the Corps of Engineers, which (a major investigative series by the Washington Post earlier this year showed) operates with unusual autonomy and lack of critical oversight. Congress - which is supposed to be the overseer - itself has resisted reform. With an annual budget of $12 billion, there's a lot at stake for special interests as well as rivers, wetlands, and other large chunks of the environment.
"The question now is whether the inherent corruption of the system will triumph or whether needed reforms will be enacted," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
In Washington last week, Sweeney was named "Whistleblower of the Year" by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a private organization in Washington that spotlights government waste.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society