Whistleblowers: The Canaries in the Coal Mines
The canaries are calling.
Look! In the sky. It's absurd. It's insane. No, it's Irony Man.
Not Iron Man -- Irony Man. News junkies know him as Scott Bloch, after it was reported last week that the FBI had raided the office of Special Counsel. In the wake of the raid, the National Whistleblower Center issued this statement, hinting at Bloch's Irony Man identity:
"In a notably ironic turn of events ...Bloch -- who is charged with protecting federal whistleblowers -- has been under investigation for, among other things, whistleblower retaliation within his own agency. Most of the whistleblower community has been disappointed with Bloch's tenure in office. He had no actual expertise in the field and was viewed as a patronage appointment."
I couldn't get in touch with Bloch, but I think he would agree with my assessment that the FBI's timing couldn't be better -- at least for the folks organizing "Whistleblower Week" in the nation's capital, which happens to be this week!
But I was able to catch up with the president of No Fear Institute, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. NFI is organizing the Whistleblower Week conference.
Coleman-Adebayo was a senior Environmental Protection Agency representative to the White House under the Clinton administration. While serving on a special U.S. commission working with the South African government, she blew the whistle on the death she discovered was being wrought in South African communities where vanadium pentoxide is mined by poor villagers to supply the steel alloy America relies on for making bridges, airplanes, cars, even knives, forks and surgical instruments. Vanadium is one of the chemical compounds mixed with steel that allows it to bend and contract without breaking.
When Coleman-Adebayo found that lack of environmental regulations and labor laws in South Africa were literally killing poor miners and their families, Coleman-Adebayo tried to call attention to the silent killer. Her superiors told her to forget about it, but her refusal to forget about it led to her increasingly hostile ouster.
In August of 2000, a federal jury found the EPA guilty of violating her civil rights. Coleman-Adebayo became an activist and organized a grass-roots campaign that eventually led to the passage of the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act (the No FEAR Act), which was signed into law by President Bush in 2002.
A year later, Congress began to gut the law. Since then, Coleman-Adebayo and the rest of the whistleblower community has been working with congressional allies on new legislation. "One of the goals of Whistleblower week is to push for new legislation," she told me on Mother's Day.
One is called the Congressional Disclosure Protection Act, which is designed to protect workers against whistleblower retaliation if they should testify before Congress.
"Almost always, when you testify (as a whistleblower) before Congress, you are immediately retaliated against, usually fired. This Act will provide some protection when workers exercise their constitutional right to talk to Congress."
Another law being advocated is the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act -- to prevent the IRS from taxing compensatory damages awarded to whistleblowers whose civil rights were violated. When Coleman-Adebayo was compensated for the EPA's retaliation, the IRS took half of it back in taxes! The Civil Tax Relief Act would end that foolishness.
"People don't know it but they've gutted the 1964 Civil Rights Act through taxation. There are people who have gone into bankruptcy trying to get their day in court under a law that Dr. King died for."
Then there's No Fear Act II, designed to make No Fear I gut-proof by defining what disciplinary action must be taken by employers who violate workers civil rights in retaliation for whistle blowing, left undefined in No Fear I.
"I think it will go down as one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in history," Coleman-Adebayo said.
Because she has seen corruption in federal government first hand through her experience in South Africa, Coleman-Adebayo believes "one of the most important things whoever the next president can do is to clean up the federal government." (http://www.whistleblowers.org/html/2008_survey.html)
"We are hoping Senator Obama, Clinton or McCain will take up the mantle to clean up the corruption. Until the corruption is cleaned up, nothing the government does will work for the people. Whistleblowers are simply the canaries in the mine. We die off first -- but not long after, the carbon dioxide comes out of the mines."
"The whistleblower community is one of the most courageous communities I've been involved with. Through loss of jobs, families, even death, in some cases, they've made the decision to stand and fight. That's what the week is all about -- a community of people willing to stand up and fight for their country."
The canaries are calling. Will you listen?
Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org