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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SEPTEMBER 7, 2006
10:20 AM

CONTACT: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Carol Goldberg (202) 265-7337

 
"Public Servant of the Year" Says His Warnings Were in Vain
Dangers of Toxic Prison Computer Recycling Operations Continue Unabated
 

WASHINGTON - September 7 - The federal employee today named whistleblower of the year for 2006 finds his actions failed to change dangerous conditions inside prison industries, according to a statement released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, he charges that the federal Bureau of Prisons and its parent agency, the Department of Justice, continue to cover-up toxic exposure of both staff and inmates working in computer recycling operations.

Today, Leroy Smith, a federal prison safety manager, received the “Public Servant of the Year” award from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal agency charged with whistleblower protection. Mr. Smith was honored for coming forward with documents showing that computer terminal disassembly plants were showering particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, over both inmates and civilian prison staff at Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced, California.

The award comes nearly two years after his original disclosure but Smith says conditions have not changed at Atwater or the six other federal prisons with similar computer recycling plants. In his statement, Smith said:

  • “The dangers that I identified go un-remedied to the continuing detriment of my colleagues who work in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the inmates working in those prison industry factories.”
  • “Daily, I receive calls from my colleagues working in computer recycling operations at other correctional institutions who describe coming home coated in dust. They had been assured that there was no danger. Now, many have health problems and others are scared about what lies in store for them.”

Smith’s allegations were reviewed and upheld by the OSC which found the explanations offered by the Bureau of Prisons to be “unreasonable,” “inconsistent with documentary evidence,” and relying on “strained interpretations” of safety requirements. In May, the Justice Department Office of Inspector General promised to investigate but none of the witnesses named by Smith have yet been contacted.

“It is supremely frustrating for conscientious employees to risk their careers bringing dangers to light only to see business continue as usual,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The accountability mechanisms in the federal government, while never strong, have now ceased to function altogether.”

Ironically, Smith is being honored even though OSC has rejected similar complaints and disclosures from his colleagues at other prisons. Moreover, OSC also dismissed Smith’s complaint that he faced retaliation for his warnings. Smith then proceeded on his own, represented by San Francisco attorney Mary Dryovage, to force a resolution: Smith now works as the safety manager at the Federal Correctional Institution at Tucson, Arizona.

“Things have gotten so pathetic at the Office of Special Counsel that they could only find one case in the whole year where the whistleblower did not have an utterly miserable experience,” Ruch concluded, noting that, despite Smith’s dissatisfaction, it is rare for a federal whistleblower to receive any positive recognition.

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