In 2013, Taylor Johnson, a senior special agent in the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Investigation, uncovered money laundering, bank and wire fraud and ties to both organized crime and high-ranking politicians in a federal program designed to encourage foreign investment.
Johnson went to her superiors with her findings. But instead of being rewarded for uncovering massive fraud and corruption in a government agency, she was derided as a whistleblower and punished for sounding the internal alarm.
She was stripped of her credentials, her government vehicle and her weapon. Her access to the building she worked in and all government databases was revoked. Her salary was decreased while she was in the middle of an adoption. She almost lost her youngest daughter when the adoption social worker called the agency to verify Johnson’s employment and was told she had been fired for a criminal offense.
“There are no policies in place which limit the disciplinary action against agents,” Johnson said. “I was slandered to the point where I couldn’t perform my job, because of malicious and false gossip.”
Despite protections set out in the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, federal whistleblowers still face damaging retaliation, and those punishing them are rarely held accountable for these violations.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs heard testimony from whistleblowers and advocates Thursday in a “first step” toward increased implementation of the law and protection for those who call out corruption and abuse in government, said Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine led a mission that sought to free military and civilian hostages, including Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Colin Rutherford, Joshua Boyle and his wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their child, whom Coleman had in captivity.
Amerine noticed quickly that the “bureaucracy for hostage recovery was broken,” he said. “And because of that five hostages and a prisoner of war had little hope of escaping.”
Bergdahl was exchanged for five senior Taliban being held at Guantanamo Bay in May 2014. The others remain in captivity.
Amerine went to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, to get assistance in cutting the inter-agency red tape keeping the hostage recovery process from moving forward.
Following his protected disclosures to Hunter, the Army suspended Amerine’s security clearance and removed him from his job. His retirement orders were deleted a few months before he was set to retire, which also caused a stop in his pay, and the Army opened a criminal investigation into his activities.
Since the investigation began, Amerine said his only communication with his chain of command was when he was informed he would be escorted out of the Pentagon because he was the subject of a criminal investigation.
“In five months, no one has spoken to me about what actually occurred,” he said.
Each witness at Thursday’s hearing recounted stories of discovering corruption, incompetence or waste in their respective agencies and then facing damaging repercussions for bringing them to light.
Michael Keegan, a former associate commissioner for facilities and supply management at the Social Security Administration, said he was forced to retire five years ahead of schedule, before he was financially prepared to do so, after he disclosed to his superiors that the SSA had been misleading Congress about some of its projects. The repercussions he faced caused troubles with his marriage, too, he said.
Jose Ducos-Bello, a chief officer with Customs and Border Patrol, noted marital struggles as well as financial strain caused by years of paying for legal fees after he reported fraud, waste and improper use of overtime at the agency. After his complaints, he was given three options by the agency: resign, retire or limit himself to a menial job utilizing none of his skills. He chose option three.
However what was hardest for him, he said, was the day he got a call telling him that his son was on the roof of his high school preparing to jump because he was so distraught at what was happening to his father. His son agreed to come down from the roof and was unharmed, but the memories are still painful, Ducos-Bello said.
All of the witnesses said no disciplinary action has been taken against the leadership in their organizations for the retaliation inflicted on them.
Tom Devine, director of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting whistleblowers, said the whistleblower protection law was a great first step but there was more work to be done. Devine recommends completing the structural reforms to government agencies laid out in the law and improving the protections for military whistleblowers.
He also warned the criminalization of whistleblowing will have a chilling effect on those who might otherwise come forward, as facing jail time is a more frightening possibility than losing a job, Devine said.
This chilling effect is what Amerine said troubled him most. He said the criminal investigation was frightening.