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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Teresa Chambers Case Highlights Limitations of Whistleblower Laws, Need to Pass WPEA

Lindsay Bigda, January 21, 2011

Last week, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ordered the National Park Service to reinstate whistleblower Teresa Chambers as Chief of the U.S. Park Police, as well as to reimburse her for back pay and legal costs. Her case garnered national attention when she was removed by the Bush administration in 2004 after telling the Washington Post that "traffic accidents had increased along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway because two, rather than the recommended four, officers were on patrol," as well as that more officers were needed to safeguard the country's national monuments and memorials.

The fifty-three page ruling by the MSPB is a tremendous victory, and is precedent-setting for other federal employee whistleblowers. From the Washington Post:

The case also sends an important message that legal safeguards apply to top officials who expose problems, not just to middle- and low-ranking ones.

However, Chambers' ultimate victory does not eclipse the struggles faced during her seven-year legal battle. Chambers and her husband engaged in an all-out campaign -- often working 18-20 hours a day (see video below) -- to build a case, with the aid of public interest lawyers and a web of public support. The case suggests that success resulted not only from the slivers of protections afforded under the Whistleblower Protection Act, but also from the Chambers’ own determination, hard work, and network of advocates. Yet, many whistleblowers are unable to dedicate such time and money to their cases, and thus, fall through the cracks. 

Teresa Chambers' case also raises an important question about the inconsistency of protections granted under whistleblower laws. From the Post:

For instance, the Merit Systems Protection Board, in ruling for Chambers this month, said she was entitled to whistleblower protection when she told the public that because of inadequate funding, too few Park Police were available to stop drunk drivers on the George Washington Parkway. But the board said protection was not afforded her statement that "the staffing and resource crisis" would probably lead to loss of life or destruction of a national icon such as the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty.

The MSPB’s analysis of which statements are and are not protected seems both subjective and fickle. How can potential whistleblowers be sure that their disclosures will be protected? It seems that under current legislation, there is no such guarantee. The Chambers case highlights, once more, the need for Congress to strengthen whistleblower protections for federal employees. One way to do this would be to pass the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA).

Think about this for a second. Chambers, who was

a.) clearly on the right side of the law
b.) engaged in this legal battle full time
c.) enjoyed widespread national, relatively favorable media coverage
d.) enjoyed nationwide support from concerned citizens (link to her site), and
e.) had another full time person working with her on her battle (her husband)

is finally receiving justice after seven years. That's 84 months, or over 2,500 days.

Knowing this, do we really expect lesser-known federal whistleblowers, with limited time and resources to devote to mounting a legal campaign, to stand a shred of a chance to receive justice?

Lindsay Bigda is Communications Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.