Washington insiders expose own agencies

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

As the election approaches, insiders and former insiders at government agencies are raising issues, revealing data, and making charges that are creating pointed disputes about the Bush administration at a crucial time in the election campaign.

Some observers believe the closeness of the presidential race may be a factor prompting the disgruntled to speak out on a wide variety of issues from environmental regulations to homeland security to civil rights.

Whether the critiques come from principled whistleblowers or from people with partisan axes to grind, they are coming in unprecedented numbers, indicating that bureaucrats and other insiders have become more willing to go out on a limb to criticize the White House and agencies headed by political appointees than they may have been in the past.

The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported last week that the number of official whistleblower reports has gone up significantly since 2001, from 380 cases that year to 535 cases in 2003.

Meanwhile, the backlog of pending whistleblower reports to the Office of Special Counsel, the federal the agency charged with investigating such complaints, has more than doubled to 690.

"Time and again, whistleblowers have proven critical to protecting the public, but their courage is wasted if their warnings just gather dust in a file drawer," says Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

As the election approaches, controversial assertions have been mounting.

Recently, an intelligence official apparently leaked a classified report to show that the intelligence community was warning the Bush administration, prior to the Iraq war, of the strong potential for unrest there after an overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

And this month the EPA inspector general found that the Bush administration's new rule for industrial pollution sites had "seriously hampered EPA settlement activities, existing enforcement cases, and the development of future cases."

This week, the Environmental Integrity Project - headed by the EPA's former head of regulatory enforcement, who resigned in protest - amplified that concern, reporting that enforcement actions against air and water polluters has dropped 75 percent under the Bush administration.

Industry officials dismiss the charges as "gratuitous bean-counting," as Scott Segal, head of a group that lobbies for power-generating companies, put it.

"It is beyond doubt that power-plant emissions continue their 30-year decline, a trend that is evident during the current administration," says Mr. Segal.

Indeed, the Justice Department announced last week that FY 2004 broke previous records in forcing polluters to pay more than $4 billion to clean up their messes. In addition, Justice officials reported, courts imposed more than $181 million in civil penalties for violations in environmental cases, second only to the record recovery of $203 million in 2003.

Still, concern about environmental enforcement is widespread, with many of the complaints coming from government professionals regarding programs now under the management of political appointees who had worked in industries regulated by those programs.

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.

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."

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