Still reeling from combat injuries, Mike Helms opened the letter from the Pentagon, afraid of more bad news.
Military doctors had already told him he couldn’t get treatment for a head injury he’d sustained in a blast in Iraq. After the intelligence officer complained to Congress, he was fired.
But reading the notice, Helms realized it was the best outcome he could have hoped for: Investigators had concluded the military had illegally retaliated against him for blowing the whistle.
“Finally,” he told his lawyer that day in 2010. “This is going to be fixed.”
But it wasn’t. More than four years later, he still can’t get his old job back or even a new one after the Army revoked his security clearance. He still struggles to get proper medical treatment.
The case illustrates the perseverance required of defense and intelligence whistleblowers and the hurdles they encounter despite initiatives aimed at improving protections for them. Most recently, the Pentagon inspector general’s office has been accused of changing findings in his case and several others in a way that’s detrimental to whistleblowers.
“According to President Obama, everything should be hunky-dory for whistleblowers,” said Helms, a Georgia native who lives in a community outside Fort Knox, Ky. “Well, it’s not.
“The whistleblowing system has ruined my life. I’m 38 years old, and I’m wondering whether I have to move back in with my mother.”
Bridget Ann Serchak, a spokeswoman with the Pentagon inspector general’s office, said she couldn’t comment on specific cases because the office had to protect the privacy of employees who made the claims.
In response to the overall allegations that her office had improperly changed findings, she said cases underwent a “rigorous quality-review process” to ensure that they were “accurate and complete, legally sufficient and professionally prepared.”
Helms’ troubled journey through the whistleblower system began in 2004, when he was wounded in Iraq as a gunner and transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Although he’d been hit by a roadside bomb while in an unprotected Humvee, the hospital refused to admit him. The hospital told Helms he couldn’t be treated there because he wasn’t active-duty military but a civilian for the Army Intelligence and Security Command.
So he slept on the floor of his first sergeant’s guesthouse.
“Mr. Helms continued to be denied treatment,” records on his case say.
Helms began contacting members of Congress and eventually received treatment. In 2007, he testified before a closed House Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter. The committee later issued a report that confirmed the problems he’d raised with military civilian employees being improperly denied medical treatment for combat injuries.
A year after he testified, the Army accused him of putting adult pornography on a classified network that he and others used. Officials also claimed that he’d installed an unauthorized version of computer software. His clearance was suspended, then revoked, and he was fired in 2009.
Unbeknown to Helms at the time, a military computer-forensics team had concluded that there was no evidence he’d placed pornography on the network, according to military documents.
Helms appealed to an administrative employee complaint panel, which declined to assess his whistleblower claims. However, the panel said the Army had the right to suspend him indefinitely.
Four months later, the Pentagon inspector general’s office concluded there was evidence he was improperly denied medical treatment and that the firing was in retaliation for his disclosures to Congress.
“As an emergency essential employee, Mr. Helms was entitled to elect treatment at a military treatment facility for no cost,” the 2010 report said. “Mr. Helms was denied treatment at military treatment facilities on several occasions from 2004 to the present.”
The investigators also found “flaws” in how the Army investigated the porn allegations, their report said, including a “material misstatement of fact.”
“The manner in which the investigation was conducted was called into question,” they wrote. “We recommend that you consider an appropriate remedy with respect to Mr. Helms.”
As part of a partial settlement, the Army dropped the allegations and agreed that it wouldn’t use the claims against Helms in the future. Two years later, however, he went back to the Pentagon inspector general’s office. His complaint was essentially the same, but now he alleged the retaliation had lasted longer because he still didn’t have his security clearance or his job back.
This time, the inspector general’s office came to a very different conclusion. While staff investigators concluded that he’d been retaliated against a second time, the general counsel and other supervisors are accused of overturning their findings and rewriting the report, McClatchy has learned from multiple sources who include congressional staffers.
According to a copy of the final report, the new investigation focused on the computer software allegations that had been dropped earlier. It also cited evidence presented by the Army that investigators had discarded in the first review.
And in the end, it found he wasn’t retaliated against.
“I was shocked. It was a 180-degree change,” said Helms, who owes thousands of dollars in legal fees. “To me, this is corruption of the system.”
After hearing of the allegations, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told Inspector General Jon Rymer she was concerned that his office had handled Helms’ case improperly.
“It is my understanding that your investigators DID find that Mr. Helms had been retaliated against for these disclosures but that their conclusions were altered over their protests,” she wrote in a letter obtained by McClatchy.
“Your office is on the front line of enforcing these protections, and accusations that the integrity of your retaliation investigations are improperly compromised cut to your core competency to serve the American public and the warfighter.”
Serchak, the inspector general’s spokeswoman, said in response to the allegations that managers and lawyers routinely reviewed findings. As a result, reports are “edited, findings modified and, when warranted, conclusions changed.”
“The process is a collective process . . . reflecting the highest standards for quality, independence and professionalism,” she said.
Despite the reversal, Helms persists. He petitioned the intelligence community inspector general, who oversees a new appeals panel set up under the president’s expanded whistleblower protections. So far, he’s waited more than three months.
“Sometimes I feel like giving up,” he said recently, after his latest round in the dozens of rejections he’s gotten from potential employers. “But at this point, my future depends on what happens.”