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What We Do To Whistleblowers

While whistleblowers often bring about changes that serve their fellow citizens, their personal sacrifice is immense. Legitimate whistleblowers are risk-takers for the truth, and what they risk, above all, is their own well-being. They pay dearly after they jump ship to expose corruption or abuse. When they regret their decision, it is generally because they vastly underestimated the potential damage, especially for their families. When whistleblowing succeeds, there is always a loss of innocence - not only among the public, but for the whistleblowers themselves.

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Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse exposed conflicts of interest in the Pentagon - an act that cost her her career. The daughter of poor and uneducated parents who carried high expectations for their children, Greenhouse grew up on the black side of segregated Rayville, a small cotton-picking town in the Louisiana delta. She was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in mathematics from Southern University in just three years. She went on to earn three master's degrees - in business management from the University of Central Texas, in engineering from the George Washington University, and in national resources strategy from the National Defense University. After finishing her education, Greenhouse taught math in her hometown high school for 16 years before starting a career as an Army procurement officer.

In 1997, after regular promotions, Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard offered her a civilian leadership position in the Corps of Engineers, making her Principal Assistant Responsible for Contracting (PARC) - the first black person to hold that position. The new job put her in the Senior Executive Service - the top level of government employees - and in charge of overseeing the management of billions of dollars.

Right before the invasion of Iraq, the Corps decided to award a no-bid "emergency" contract worth $7 billion to Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) - a Halliburton subsidiary - to repair Iraq's oil infrastructure. Greenhouse thought the plan was absurd. She objected to KBR using its own cost projections for a multi-year no-bid contract and did not buy the assertion, written into the contract, that a five-year deal was necessary because of "compelling emergency."

Greenhouse also saw evidence of a clear conflict of interest: Before becoming the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton. She recommended that the contract be limited to a year and that other companies be allowed to bid on it.

When Greenhouse received the final draft of the contract, however, she found that her recommendations had been ignored. She then wrote her reservations on the draft in ink, and her notations became public after the contract was released through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004.

In the ensuing furor, Greenhouse gave interviews to the media, and the FBI opened an investigation into "alleged price-gouging" and overbilling. After Greenhouse accused KBR of price-gouging, a Pentagon audit found that "KBR apparently overbilled the government $61 million for fuel in Iraq." The audit was halted after the Corps granted KBR a waiver from explaining the charge, saying its pricing had been dictated by an Iraqi subcontractor.

Greenhouse was incensed. She felt not only that the waiver was wrong, but that her superiors had done an end run around her, drawing up and approving the waiver while she was away from the office.

But they didn't stop there. In October 2004, the Corps attempted to demote her and remove her from her job - a move heavily motivated by Greenhouse's objection to the Halliburton contracts. Upon discovering this, the Acting Secretary of the Army insisted that the Corps wait until an investigation of Greenhouse's allegations had been completed.

With her removal stalled, Greenhouse was invited to testify before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee in June 2005 - the only congressional body that expressed interest in her charges - even though her superiors told her she would be ill-advised to do so. Undaunted, she told the committee, "I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career."

Three weeks later, the Corps informed Greenhouse she would be removed from office. She was demoted, stripped of her top secret clearance and membership in the Senior Executive Service, and given a $2,000 pay cut. "They stuck me in a little cubicle down the hall [and] took my building pass," she said. "It's all about humiliation."

Her superiors maintained she had been demoted for poor job performance, as reported by the New York Times - Lieutenant General Carl A. Strock said her removal was "based on her performance and not in retaliation for any disclosures of alleged improprieties she may have made." The allegations stood in stark contrast with the stellar reviews she had received as PARC - Greenhouse was rated near or at the highest possible level in job reviews three years in a row, and her supervisors described her as "effective, enthusiastic, energetic, tenacious, selfless . . . the epitome of fairness in Corps contracting."

Some colleagues did say, however, that Greenhouse had been having trouble on the job - and a former boss explained to NBC News that while she had great integrity, she also had detractors because she was "a stickler for the rules."

Another factor may have been Greenhouse's race and gender. More than one Corps employee mentioned hearing racist remarks made about Greenhouse, and she even filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging racial and gender discrimination. Soon after, her annual performance reviews went from five stars to harsh critiques.

Regardless of the peripheral motives, it was clear that Greenhouse's whistleblowing was at the center of her demotion. Her lawyer, Michael Kohn, stated that her removal constituted "blatant discrimination" and violated the earlier agreement with the Army to suspend her demotion until after the inspector general finished his investigation. When Kohn called Dan Meyer, director of civilian reprisal investigations in the inspector general's office, in August 2005, Meyer was shocked to hear that the corps had proceeded against Greenhouse and said he would open an investigation.

Kohn took this even further, writing to Secretary Rumsfeld that "the circumstances surrounding Ms. Greenhouse's removal are the hallmark of illegal retaliation." Rumsfeld never replied. Even after a group of Democratic senators joined Kohn in asking Rumsfeld to reinstate Greenhouse pending an investigation, her situation failed to improve.

After Greenhouse returned multiple times to testify to Congress, the humiliation escalated to physical intimidation. A day before her 66th birthday, she stumbled on a trip wire that had been set up in her office, injuring her left kneecap. After the incident, she asked if she could telecommute or move to another agency. Her superiors refused. She filed a Title VII discrimination complaint.

Greenhouse retired from government on July 22, 2011. A few days later, she won a $970,000 settlement for lost wages, compensatory damages, and legal fees. "No settlement is going to make me whole," she remarked.

Now a mathematics teacher at Northern Virginia Community College, Greenhouse maintained at the time that she was happy to move on - but sad that her government career had ended so abruptly after 29 years. Testifying before the House Oversight Committee in support of the 2009 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, she described the hostility she faced as "blatantly tied to my race and gender."

In speaking truth to power, whistleblowers reveal seemingly inescapable circumstances to be intolerable - challenging the rest of us to think for ourselves. Bunny Greenhouse exposed the gap between America's ideals and lived reality, demanding the pursuit of a more perfect union. More than many, she served her country - at enormous personal cost.

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From the publisher:

"A magisterial exploration of whistleblowing in America, from the Revolutionary War to the Trump era

"Misconduct by those in high places is always dangerous to reveal. Whistleblowers thus face conflicting impulses: by challenging and exposing transgressions by the powerful, they perform a vital public service - yet they always suffer for it. This episodic history brings to light how whistleblowing, an important but unrecognized cousin of civil disobedience, has held powerful elites accountable in America.

"Analyzing a range of whistleblowing episodes, from the corrupt Revolutionary War commodore Esek Hopkins (whose dismissal led in 1778 to the first whistleblower protection law) to Edward Snowden, to the dishonesty of Donald Trump, Allison Stanger reveals the centrality of whistleblowing to the health of American democracy. She also shows that with changing technology and increasing militarization, the exposure of misconduct has grown more difficult to do and more personally costly for those who do it - yet American freedom, especially today, depends on it."

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See also:

* Stanger, Washington Post: Stop Trying To Police Who Gets To Count As A "Real" Whistleblower.

* Stanger, New York Times: Why America Needs Whistleblowers.

* The Washingtonian: Allison Stanger's New Book Brings Context To The Whistleblower Complaint.

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And:

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Previously in whistleblowers:

* Why Companies Like Wells Fargo Ignore Whistleblowers.

* Winnetka Dude Wins $750K For Blowing Whistle On Rigged Stock Market.

* A Plea: Do What Katherine Gun Did.

* Obama Promises, Including Whistleblower Protections, Disappear From Website.

* Snowden: Why I Became A Whistleblower.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on October 11, 2019


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