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Silence Is a Sin

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
August 14, 2020

Years ago, when I worked for the Civil Service Commission (CSC), I chaired a Performance Rating Act appeal panel of a person who alleged he was fired for being a whistleblower. The panel consisted of a member chosen by the agency, a member chosen by the appellant and a chair from the CSC. The appellant had caught the attention of national news which ran a segment supportive of the whistleblowers’ allegations. However, the evidence the appellant submitted to the panel did not demonstrate whistleblowing; it demonstrated refusal to follow legitimate instructions unrelated to his unproven whistleblower claims. Consequently, the appeal panel unanimously supported the agency decision.

I provide the above example to highlight that I understand not all whistleblowers raise legitimate concerns. However, because the seriousness of recent whistleblower claims is increasing and administration actions against whistleblowers are accelerating, this column will examine a few examples involving recent whistleblowers and the resultant troubling administration actions.

Brett Crozier, former Captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was fired for raising health concerns within his agency. On March 22, 2020, a sailor on the aircraft carrier that Crozier commanded was diagnosed with COVID19. The USS Theodore Roosevelt houses a complement of approximately 5000 navy personnel in very close quarters, making it a potential disease super spreader. On March 26, testing of the entire crew began and by March 29 eight sailors were in Naval Hospital Guam. Crozier unsuccessfully tried to develop a plan with his superiors to deal with the virus spread. On March 30, a frustrated Crozier sent an email with an attachment to a larger set of Navy officials noting the accelerating spread of the disease. Someone leaked the attachment to the San Francisco Chronicle. Crozier was fired for breaking the chain of command. While it is true that Crozier breached the chain of command, it is also true that he was dealing with a serious health hazard with inadequate action by the chain of command. Crozier’s superiors had lesser discipline options than firing.

According to Dr. Rick Bright, he was removed from his position of Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after he refused to promote use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, both of which the Food and Drug Agency subsequently cautioned against using in the treatment of COVID19. Shortly after his removal appeal, the Office of Special Council issued preliminary findings that supported Bright’s allegations noting that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Bright’s demotion was unlawful retaliation for his refusal to promote the drugs.

The House of Representatives subpoenaed Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman to testify in their impeachment inquiry and Vindman testified in November 2019. In
February 2020, after the impeachment process concluded, the president fired Vindman. Subsequently, the normal Army promotion process included Vindman’s name on a promotion list the Pentagon provided to the Senate. However, the administration pressured the Pentagon to omit Vindman’s name. Senator Tammy Duckworth announced she would hold up the entire promotion list until she got reassurances that the Pentagon did not remove Vindman’s name. Duckworth noted this, “Is about protecting a merit-based system from political corruption and unlawful retaliation.” Vindman subsequently retired citing political retaliation.

The above examples cover just a few of the current courageous whistleblowers who risked their careers for good government. They are a sample of those trying to do their jobs in an environment with increasing retaliation for disclosing wrong doing. These individuals had their careers negatively affected for telling the truth in the face of pushback from the administration.

The pressure against truth telling has not been limited to careerists. Presidential appointees have also been affected. Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey was removed after he refused to end an investigation of a former presidential aide. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was dismissed because he had recused himself from investigations related to the 2016 campaign. Five inspector generals, all of whom had ongoing investigations involving administration corruption, were removed this spring. The Manhattan Attorney General was fired while he was investigating individuals connected with the current administration.

The retaliation identified above makes it difficult for those in government to expose wrongdoing. It is a significant challenge to good government. While such retaliation is prohibited by several laws (e.g., the Inspector General Act of 1978, the 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act), the enforcement of those laws is unclear in today’s political environment. As a result, exposing wrongdoing in the federal government today is extremely hazardous to career progression.

Transparency International has maintained an international corruption index with the same methodology since 2011. Between 2011 and 2017, the United States index had consistently ranged between 73 and 76. In 2018 the rating was 71 and in 2019 the rating was 69. The world sees corruption increasing in the United States.

Abraham Lincoln said, “It is a sin to be silent when it is your duty to protest.” The United States is fortunate to have heroic civil servants who are taking the risk to speak out about despite high personal cost. We need to support those who are trying to tell the truth and preserve good governance.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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