George Sarris couldn't believe what he found. As a senior civilian Air Force aircraft mechanic working at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, he discovered serious maintenance concerns with two types of aircraft critical for national security missions.
You would think that military personnel who find problems that could compromise sensitive missions would be rewarded, or at the very least, properly valued. But that wasn't the case for Sarris, who was (at first) ignored. He persisted in taking these problems up the chain of command, and for that, he endured years of mistreatment and unjust reprisal for trying to safeguard American aircraft.
Sarris needed help with his long legal struggle. Navigating through the federal procedure and relevant offices isn't the easiest thing to do – especially alone. He turned to GAP. With our help, Sarris successfully settled a Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) lawsuit with the Air Force. The settlement vindicated Sarris and his concerns – he got what he wanted, and America got the information it needed.
Sarris is a lifelong aircraft mechanic whose career, up until blowing the whistle, was marked by steady commendations, bonuses, and performance appraisals, including one that rated him “the employee that all supervisors desire.” He was a model employee with 30 years of experience working in aviation maintenance both in the military and as a civilian.
In 2007, at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Sarris discovered a dangerous breakdown in maintenance regarding aircraft reconnaissance planes used for intelligence missions. He found that high-pressure air storage bottles in RC-135 aircraft were more than 17 years overdue for inspection and replacement. If these bottles split open, it could interfere with flight controls, electrical systems, and pressurization … potentially blowing a hole in the fuselage. Sarris also identified active fuel hoses that were 15 years past their service life and vulnerable to developing leaks, which could down the aircraft. These maintenance issues could lead to mechanical failures, delaying critical missions and endangering servicemen’s lives. Sarris’ claims were substantiated by four of his co-workers – all of whom asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Sarris had to act on these unacceptable conditions. His official reports to supervisors were ignored, so he chose to protest up the chain of command. When that led nowhere, he went to Senator Charles Grassley (R-Ia) and Congressmen Steven King (R-Ia) and Lee Terry (R-Ne), and the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) hotline to report his concerns. Senator Grassley, a longtime whistleblower rights champion, wrote a letter on behalf of Sarris in 2008. He warned Sarris’s superiors that, by assisting with a Congressional investigation triggered by his disclosures, Sarris was protected from any form of retaliation.
Sarris contacted the DoD IG Hotline, and was referred to the Air Force Office of Inspector General (AF OIG). That department told Sarris to get evidence of his allegations – so he took pictures of his concerns, and dug some of the highly decayed hoses out of the trash to share with investigators. Rather than investigating Sarris’ disclosures, the AF OIG investigated him, claiming that he engaged in criminal misconduct by stealing military property to get the evidence they had demanded. The articles of theft in question? The hoses that Sarris had retrieved from the trash. The AF OIG also claimed he represented a security threat, because he had used a personal camera to photograph vulnerable parts of the aircraft.
Sarris tried the media route, which got the information in the public domain. Two months after a November 2008 front-page article ran in the Kansas City Star, which spotlighted his concerns, the Air Force suspended Sarris' security clearance. Sarris was branded as professionally incompetent and mentally unfit, and stripped of all duties. He was reassigned: first to a break room where he was literally prohibited from taking out filled bags of trash, then to work in the base fitness center. At one point, he was instructed not to leave the empty room where he was assigned without work, even if there were a fire.
Sarris turned to GAP for help. We took him on as a client, and setting him up with attorneys through our adjunct attorney program. Together, we challenged the wide range of retaliation he faced. With our help, Sarris appealed the suspension of his security clearance to the Air Force Central Adjudication Facility in March 2009, where it remained pending for more than two years. He also filed a prohibited personnel practice complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), who referred his whistleblowing charges for investigation by DoD IG. The report of investigation substantiated Sarris’ concerns, and noted that the problems had been corrected after his disclosures. In other words, Sarris was right, and he made a difference.
To vengeful superiors whose negligence Sarris exposed, that was unforgiveable. One of the most substantial challenges Sarris faced was a supervisor who relentlessly created charges against him in an attempt to permanently revoke his security clearance, even going so far as to seek a protective order against him without providing any evidence of a threat. Sarris also had to contend with only token independent appeal rights, as a Supreme Court ruling disallows the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) from reviewing the merits of the judgment call when an employee’s security clearance is removed. Until December 2010, prior Board rulings also stripped employees of appeal rights for normally-appealable personnel actions connected with a security clearance rulings, such as the IG’s retaliatory investigation or the subsequent action redefining Sarris’ job. His pension and benefits would have been in danger. For Sarris, who was only two years away from retirement, this was a real concern. GAP worked to obtain a settlement to protect Sarris from further harassment by his supervisor, and to protect his benefits.
Unfortunately, like many whistleblower cases, Sarris' case took years to resolve (four, in his specific case). But in December 2010 there was a breakthrough, as new MSPB leadership held that it could cancel all retaliation connected with a clearance, even if the latter could not be appealed. This opened the door for an MSPB proceeding, and a spotlight on ugly harassment. Air Force lawyers respected the new legal landscape, and on May 2011, GAP was happy and proud to announce the successful settlement by Sarris of his WPA lawsuit with the Air Force.
The settlement was nothing less than sheer victory. It allowed Sarris to officially maintain his mechanic position with alternate duties until a 2014 retirement, even if his suspended clearance is revoked. It removed all derogatory files, restores his performance appraisal to all “excellent” or “outstanding” ratings, and pays his attorney fees. Putting an exclamation point to vindication, the agreement explicitly permits him to further sue military officers in state court for violation of his rights – actions that remain ongoing. That provision is unprecedented in GAP’s over three decades of representing whistleblowers. It should be noted that this settlement gave Sarris more than the MSPB could have awarded even had he prevailed on the merits.GAP is proud to be involved with whistleblowers who have dedicated their professional lives to serving our country. For every George Sarris out there, there are scores of individuals who remain quiet about corruption and wrongdoing they witness, often because they can't risk their livelihoods. Sarris is proof that whistleblowers are necessary, deserve protections, and should be honored for their courage.