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Why are federal whistleblowers being sent to the basement?

The Whistleblower Protection Act expressly outlaws retaliatory measures being taken against those federal employees who act as whistleblowers, meaning they make the brave decision to expose internal problems and/or highlight possibly fraudulent practices.

Interestingly, recently published reports outline how many federal employees who once served as whistleblowers are being indirectly punished in a way that seems more like something out of a situation comedy than real life.

Here, the form of indirect punishment is moving their workspaces to isolated environments such as basements, service closets and even break rooms, where they are given reduced duties meant to enhance the feeling of isolation, idleness and embarrassment.

“There’s a long, rich tradition of exiling whistleblowers to dusty, dark closets, or hallways, or public spaces,” said an official with the Government Accountability Project. “[It’s] the bureaucratic equivalent of putting a whistleblower in the stocks.”

Indeed, the reports discuss notable instance of employment exile, including:

  • An Air Force chemist who provided testimony in a military court regarding office mismanagement in the 1980s found himself relocated to a basement and tasked with janitorial duties upon his return to work.
  • An FBI employee who reported that fellow employees were misusing the time-and-attendance system in 2005 found himself relocated to a cubicle located on a vacant floor in an office building.

While no concrete statistics exist as to the frequency with which federal employees and contractors are effectively exiled, a 2010 survey of government workers did find that 13.7 percent of respondents indicated that they had been relocated to a different “geographical location” as punishment by superiors. However, it is worth noting that this survey had an overly broad definition of “geographical location,” such that it could mean down the hallway or across the nation.

All this, of course, begs the question as to whether such actions are legal.

According to experts, Congress expressly banned agencies from implementing major changes into a whistleblower’s “working conditions” as punishment for their actions back in 1994.

However, these experts also indicate that the courts have taken a somewhat divided approach on this issue with some holding that moving a whistleblower to the basement, hallway or broom closet is categorical evidence of punishment, while others have determined that it must be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine if it really is punishment.

It will be interesting to see if Congress once again takes action to address this unfortunate reality. Here’s hoping that they take steps to rectify this type of under the radar retaliation.

If you believe that you’ve been victimized by any form of whistleblower retaliation, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about your rights and options under the law.

Source: The Washington Post, “For whistleblowers, a bold move can be followed by one to department basement,” David A. Fahrenthold, Aug. 3, 2014

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