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Working In These Times

Monday, May 2, 2011, 7:47 am

Government Muzzles Watchdogs, Silences Whistleblowers

BY Michelle Chen

Somewhere at the Environmental Protection Agency, there is an obscure special office designed to settle grievances about discrimination and bias. But over the years, the Office of Civil Rights has slowly morphed from an outlet for adjudicating inequities to a bureaucratic black hole where complaints vaporize without a trace.

Take the case of Rafael DeLeon, director of the Agency’s Office of Civil Rights. He was recently called out for making racist and sexist remarks—yes, the was accused of violating the very rules he was tasked with enforcing.

That complaint is reportedly now under internal investigation. But overhanging the case is a thick fog of impunity and incompetence, say whistleblower advocates. More examples of internal suppression and general disrespect for civil rights have surfaced in a new independent audit of the Office of Civil Rights.

According to a report by Deloitte Consulting, the Office has failed to address complaints relating to “allegations of discrimination against communities of citizens affected to environmental rules promulgated by the EPA.” Though the Obama administration promised to reform and streamline the EPA, the office has apparently fallen short in efforts promoting racial and social equity in environmental regulation. That’s bad news for poor neighborhoods and communities of color hit by toxic dumping or massive industrial smog.

Moreover, the audit found that the Office of Civil Rights failed to uphold equal employment opportunity guidelines and was plagued by mismanagement of investigations of complaints.

The study concludes that for years, the Office “appeared to place too much emphasis on minor responsibilities, like executing heritage events, and not enough on the critical discrimination cases affecting employees and disadvantaged communities.”

The disturbing pattern raises questions about whether agencies like the EPA are able, or willing, to investigate and address complaints of discrimination in their own ranks. When public employees can’t rely on an internal auditor to deal with discrimination, that only compounds the humiliation of workplace abuses, discourages transparency and enforces a culture of impunity.

Richard Renner, head of the National Whistleblowers Center, a legal advocacy and watchdog group, wrote a letter to EPA head Lisa Jackson calling for the resignation of Rafael DeLeon:

The recent Deloitte Consultant Report on the civil rights program described OCR as essentially dysfunctional.  Yet, the very man placed in the office to “fix it,” is someone that numerous women have filed complaints against.

During a recent MSPB hearing, under oath, Mr. DeLeon stated that he could not “remember” how many complaints had been filed against him. OCR’s dysfunctionality undercuts the ability of EPA employees to seek redress after experiencing discrimination or warning the public about serious violations. 

Our communities will ultimately bear the cost. EPA employees are discouraged from raising concerns about toxic waste from the Gulf Oil spill that was dumped in a poor black community. They will have to think twice before complaining about the CHEERS program where EPA partnered with industry to conduct experiments on children. You have sent a clear and unmistakable message that the status quo is firmly in place and anyone who dares to blow the whistleblower or complain about discrimination will find a hostile Office of Civil Rights.

Renner is essentially drawing the connection between the bureaucracy and the public interest that so many in the media and in public office fail to recognize: Yes, there is dysfunction and abuse in the government, as conservatives are so fond of saying.

But the disdainful canards about lazy public employees and their disruptive unions, peddled ad nauseum by the right, are radically off target. If there is a real problem with “accountability” in the civil service, it is not simply a matter of crooked individuals. As with the private sector, there is often a cancerous social dynamic in government agencies that enables those at the top of the hierarchy to blatantly violate rules and retaliate or intimidate those in the position to expose them.

Conservatives claiming to want to get rid of “big government” can easily demonize teachers at impoverished schools or rail against union organizing in public agencies. But this rhetoric is blind to the impunity at the very top and the manipulation of subordinates. Maybe this destructive hierarchy gets glossed over because it’s exactly the type of arrogance that garners accolades in boardrooms of corporate America, which conservatives reflexively view as superior to the government sector.

In contrast to anti-union ideologues, within these agencies, it is organized labor that has the collective power to reach out to private advocacy groups and mobilize to expose a breach of public trust—often at great personal risk.

Groups like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, for instance, have campaigned on behalf of whistleblowers to expose environmental abuses and internal misconduct. But their (under-acknowledged) work suggests that many other violations are never brought forward because employees fear the consequences of speaking out.

So why is it that pro-whistleblower legislation has been stalled in Congress for years? The reecently re-introduced Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2011 (WPEA), S. 743, would, according to the Make it Safe Campaign:

provide meaningful reform of government whistleblower law by ensuring legitimate disclosures of wrongdoing will be protected, reducing unauthorized leaks, increasing accountability to taxpayers, and saving billions of taxpayer dollars by helping expose fraud, waste and abuse.

It would also enhance the free speech rights of of security personnel and expand access to the court system.

Ironically enough, in the last session of Congress, the bill was anonymously blocked using the most opaque parliamentary trick in the book. So it all comes full circle. Public workers are intimidated and gagged for speaking truth to power, while power continues to uphold the rules that allow it to police itself. And why would lawmakers do anything to promote transparency when everyone’s got something to hide?

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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