Protected disclosures

Sept. 11 was a terrible day for America and also, unfortunately, for a fed named James Hopkins, who temporarily lost his job after alerting officials to a possible link between an alleged hijacker and an individual who had received training at the FAA Academy.

Hopkins began working for the Federal Aviation Administration in May 2001 as an international aviation operations specialist. He previously served as a Navy intelligence officer for 20 years.

According to the Office of Special Council's petition, two days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, Hopkins read reports that at least one hijacker on each of the planes had received flight training in the United States. An article identified two individuals who were linked to passenger manifests of the hijacked planes — Mohamed Atta and Adnan Bukhari.

Hopkins searched FAA's International Training Program database, which contains the names of people accepted for training at the FAA Academy's Oklahoma City location. A match appeared for the name Bukhari, indicating that an individual with that surname from Saudi Arabia was trained at the FAA Academy in 1991 and 1998.

Hopkins eventually took the information to FAA security against the wishes of his supervisor, who said it was not Hopkins' responsibility to investigate the case. Once there, Hopkins was met by his third-level supervisor, who told Hopkins to return to his office and that they would discuss the information shortly.

About 30 minutes later, Hopkins' first-level supervisor placed him on administrative leave and sent him home. Soon, Hopkins and a co-worker called the FBI, which followed up with Hopkins that same day. Ultimately, the FBI cleared the suspect, although at the time Hopkins made his disclosures, the FBI had been questioning the suspect in connection with the attacks.

Eight days after Hopkins made his disclosure to FAA officials, his employment was terminated during his probationary period. According to court documents, Hopkins was dismissed because of his failure to maintain a "calm and professional approach in the completion of duties, as well as evidence of sound judgment." Hopkins filed a complaint with OSC shortly after he was fired. After a preliminary investigation, OSC determined that the decision to fire Hopkins was based on protected whistle-blowing.

When the FAA rejected OSC's request to voluntarily reinstate Hopkins, OSC filed a formal petition for a stay with the Merit Systems Protection Board on Oct. 15. Within an hour of OSC's filing, the FAA rescinded Hopkins' dismissal and placed him on paid "administrative leave status until further notice." MSPB Chairwoman Beth Slavet granted OSC's request for a stay. She found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the FAA terminated Hopkins during his probationary period because he made protected disclosures. Last we heard, Hopkins was back at his job.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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