By Joe Davidson
During a period when some in Congress and their related policy wonks think federal employees are overpaid, here comes Christian Sanchez, a Border Patrol agent who says he was punished for refusing overtime pay.
His bosses suggested that he get psychological help.
Instead, Sanchez has become a whistleblower, and on Friday he plans to tell gathering on Capitol Hill that he was retaliated against because he would not take overtime for doing no work.
Sanchez is an example of what the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy organization, calls “pocketbook whistleblowers.” They allegedly have suffered retaliation for actions that could save the government money.
This emphasis on guarding Uncle Sam’s pocketbook allows whistleblower advocates to broaden the appeal of legislation designed to expand legal protections for employees who disclose government waste, fraud and abuse. Supporting whistleblowers becomes more than helping individual employees who have been mistreated by the system — it becomes into an act of fiscal responsibility.
That approach could increase chances for the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. It’s come close to passage during the many years it has lingered in Congress, but proponents have not been able to push it across the finish line.
In a letter last month to President Obama and Congress, a group of federal whistleblowers urged them to approve the legislation, telling them that “you have allowed potentially billions of tax dollars to be wasted because all federal workers know they cannot speak up without engaging in professional suicide.”
Sanchez is speaking up, and he has paid a price.
There is little work to do at the Port Angeles, Wash., station, where he is assigned, he said. He calls it a “black hole” where agents have “no purpose, no mission.”
“The worst fraud on taxpayers is that we are getting paid overtime not to work,” Sanchez said in a prepared statement. When he first started working at the station, “I noticed it was common practice for everyone to get paid overtime not to work. Back then there were about twenty-four agents and our entire station was receiving at least two hours of Administratively Uncontrolled Overtime.” Now, he said, there are more than 40 agents there.
In response, Customs and Border Protection said it “does not comment on specific cases. We take all allegations of wrongdoing seriously and fully cooperate with the investigating authorities.”
Sanchez prepared his statement for a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, a project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. The committee and the foundation work for greater openness in government. One of the committee’s events is Friday’s panel discussion on “Making Whistleblowing Work,” to be held at the Rayburn House Office Building.
Sanchez contends that his bosses “want to create their own kingdom. The spending is to expand bureaucratic turf, not to protect our nation.”
After speaking out against the unnecessary overtime, Sanchez said, he became a target of harassment. Days off were not allowed, temporary assignments as shift supervisor were denied and urine drug tests were ordered. “The most ironic harassment,” he said, “has been removing my duties as Chaplain.”
His attorney, Tom Devine, who also is GAP’s legal director, said the proposed legislation would give Sanchez “a fighting chance” to combat retaliation.
The legislation also could have helped Bunnatine (Bunny) H. Greenhouse, who just won a $970,000 settlement in her whistleblowing case against the Army Corps of Engineers. Yet in December, she came out against the legislation, as did her attorneys with the National Whistleblowers Center.
The center’s opposition revealed a split among whistleblower advocates that apparently has not healed. Changes that the center called “a major victory” have been made to the legislation, but an April statement from the organization says “other important changes are needed to ensure that this bill does not harm existing rights and that it provides effective and workable protections for federal employee whistleblowers and, ultimately, the U.S. taxpayers.”
Ironically, Greenhouse’s bittersweet victory could have been sweeter had the bill passed in December, according to Devine, who supports the legislation. Had it been enacted, Devine said Greenhouse would have been able to keep her top-secret clearance and her Senior Executive Service status, which had been taken from her in retaliation for her whistleblowing.
He is pleased she got a nice monetary settlement, but the idea behind the legislation is to allow whistleblowers to remain in their jobs and with the government, he said, “not be paid to leave it.”