Whistle-blowers' rights

The Immigration and Naturalization Service will provide full relief to two Border Patrol agents who the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded suffered retaliation after the agents informed the media about various security lapses along the U.S. border.

The agents, Mark Hall and Robert Lindemann, assigned to INS' Detroit Sector Office, alleged that INS took or threatened to take personnel actions against them because they had disclosed that Michigan's 804 miles of shoreline border with Canada were guarded by 28 field agents, one working boat, several damaged electronic sensors and one broken remote camera; and that 324 field agents were serving the entire Canadian border and the agents were often required to release certain detainees because the Border Patrol lacked its own detention facilities. Quite a bill of particulars, wouldn't you say?

The disclosures infuriated some Border Patrol officials, who viewed the public revelation of these issues as a betrayal. As a result, INS temporarily changed Hall and Lindemann's tours of duty, causing them to lose special pay; proposed to suspend them for 90 days; and subsequently proposed to suspend them for 90 days and demote them for a year.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a long-time advocate of whistle-blowers, expressed outrage when he heard about the retaliation. Grassley told INS Commissioner James Ziglar that "it is clear from recent snafus that the INS needs more whistle-blowers who expose security problems that have been ignored by the bureaucrats. Instead, the INS and Border Patrol have chosen to retaliate against those who spotlight problems and mismanagement."

Hall and Lindemann appealed to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigated their complaints and concluded that the actions taken by Border Patrol brass violated the Whistleblower Protection Act.

In this case, the INS commissioner decided he'd rather acquiesce than fight. He agreed to provide Hall and Lindemann with back pay, plus interest for the loss of all special pay; to rescind and expunge from their personnel files the proposals to suspend and demote them; and to provide OSC-sponsored whistle-blower protection training for all managers and supervisors in the Detroit Sector and Eastern Regional Office.

A comment made in the OSC report expresses my sentiments well. "Especially in these times of heightened concern about national security," the OSC report said, "it is crucial to protect federal employees like Mr. Hall and Mr. Lindemann when they shine public light on security concerns."

Feds are in a good position to recognize any weaknesses or risks and fix them, the counsel said. Employees should never divulge classified information to the public, and Hall and Lindemann did not. Their efforts to bring attention to lingering security issues on the border were not disloyal. "On the contrary, their efforts represented an act of complete loyalty to our nation and the public they serve," the OSC report said.

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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