For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

USDA Fires Employee for Expressing Personal Opinion

Chilling Effect of Excessive Message Control over Technical Experts Decried

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has dismissed one of its top
organic standards experts because he expressed personal opinions on
technical matters, according to documents posted today by Public
Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case is at odds
with Obama administration calls for free exchange of ideas among
experts and has broad implications in that the employee did not
contradict official policy but was aiding an advisory panel in
formulating recommendations for what the official policy should be.

On
November 23, 2010, Mr. Mark D. Keating was terminated from his position
as an Agricultural Marketing Specialist with the National Organic
Program (NOP) based on communications he had with the National Organic
Standards Board (NOSB) in his professional capacity. Keating has twenty
years of experience in various aspects of organic farming but was hired
only last April, making him a probationary employee with limited rights
to appeal his dismissal. PEER is asking USDA to reverse the action.

Keating's
job description called for "wide latitude to exercise independent
judgment" to "influence, motivate, and persuade the very diverse
constituent population of the NOP" yet he was dismissed for violating
the following directive from his supervisor:

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"The
role of the NOP Standards Staff on these calls is to serve as technical
experts, provide advice, perhaps pose questions to the NOSB (i.e., have
you thought of how we will actually implement this through rulemaking?).
Please do not interject personal opinions on issues, especially when
no NOP position has been developed."

"These
contradictory directions only serve to chill candid discussions among
experts," stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that
frank, provocative exchanges can make the resulting policy better.
"Federal employees should be more than robots, limited to reciting only
the company line." In calling for Keating to be restored, PEER argues
that his termination -

  • Violates Obama administration policies encouraging "free and open inquiry" by scientists and other technical specialists; and
  • Is
    at odds with policies adopted by other agencies, such as the Department
    of Interior, promoting "free exchange of ideas" while formulating
    policy.

"It makes no sense that a technical expert in one
agency is rewarded for speaking his or her mind but that person would be
fired for doing the same thing at USDA," added Dinerstein, noting that
hasty personnel action against Shirley Sherrod this past summer caused
USDA great embarrassment. "We need people like Mark Keating in federal
service who bring common sense and real world experience to the table."

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Read the PEER letter

 View the notice of termination

Contrast Interior Department's call for free exchange of ideas

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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