A Field Guide to Government Whistleblower Retaliation


"You can probably handle the truth, but we can't, frankly."
Credit: cool revolution / photo on flickr

The scandal over the absolutely horrible treatment of patients by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a secondary scandal: VA employees who have attempted to blow the whistle on the agency's corruption have faced retaliation.

The Washington Post spent time with the woman who used to be the spokesperson for the hospital in Phoenix (the one that had been Ground Zero for the scandal, but problems have been exposed at hospitals across the country). She is no longer the hospital's spokesperson. She is now essentially a living joke about government bureaucracy:

[Paula] Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat's urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It's a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

The Post describes her workday in the basement, which is exactly what you'd think it is—she's a second receptionist in a basement library where the visitors rarely need any help at all.

The Washington Post attempted to get an explanation from the VA on why Pedene is being treated the way she was. The hit a wall, partly because the person responsible for sending Pedene to the basement has been put on leave because of the big scandal, and partly because of the typical "no comment on personnel matters" response that thwarts any journalist trying to figure out what happens to any human being who works for any government from lowly garbage collectors, to police officers, to city managers.  

Read the whole thing here.

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  1. The truth is out there–working in a leaky basement with a 40-watt bulb.

  2. So the bureaucrat who retaliated gets a (presumably) paid vacay, but the whistleblower has to show up every day to Storage Room B. This is Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

  3. They probably took away the red stapler, too.

  4. You guys I have to confess that I don’t fully comprehend the kind of persistent self-loathing that leads one to a career in the public sector. I mean, we have dick bosses in the private sector too, but if it gets to be too big a deal you can just tell the boss to cram it while you go find a new job. In the public sector your career fortunes are dictated to an unhealthy degree by the sociopaths who outrank you, and who can kill your prospects with a few spiteful words in your civil service file.

    1. Something about trading comfort for security.

      1. Sarc, this part in the article reminded me of you:

        “If it’s not back today ? in the yard and parked ? those boys will be looking for you,” he said in one phone call. He seemed to be leaving a message to the actual truck thief, threatening to call the police.

        1. I don’t get it.

          1. I thought you had a similar truck theft story months back.

            1. Not me. Never owned a truck.

              1. Sarc has an orphan powered bicycle rickshaw, right? Or was he the one carried on a palanquin by a team of waifs?

    2. Me neither. I have a brother who has only worked for the state government, a dead end bureaucracy, who claims to hate government. He wasn’t suckered into the job, he took it voluntarily. He’s a hypocrite in many other ways.

      No lo comprendo.

  5. Being a government employee and all, couldn’t she just stop showing up? I mean, it sounds like her new assignment requires her to do even less work than the typical government employee, which I didn’t think was even possible.

    1. Related:

      For one Federal Communications Commission worker, his porn habit at work was easy to explain: Things were slow, he told investigators, so he perused it “out of boredom” ? for up to eight hours each week.

      Lack of work has emerged time and again in federal investigations, and it’s not just porn, nor is it confined to the FCC. Across government, employees caught wasting time at work say they simply didn’t have enough work to do, according to investigation records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

      1. I had a friend who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service as a hydrologist. When she ran out of work and attempted to help one of her colleagues with his project, she was told to stop. By getting the projects done on time or even ahead of time, their budget would be threatened.

        1. The bureau I work for scrambles every end-of-fiscal-year to spend, spend, spend. If they don’t spend it all, the budget for next year will be cut.

          If they have a position allocated to their department, they will fill that position regardless of whether a new staff member is needed or wanted. I applied for a summer job with the Feds right after my freshman year of college. I was assigned to a personnel office at Bolling AFB that not only didn’t know I was coming to work there, but hadn’t even requested a summer hire.

        2. “Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?”

          ? Frank Herbert

    2. Being a government employee and all, couldn’t she just stop showing up?

      No, believe it or not, failure to show up is one of the things that will let them stop paying you.

    3. This article is misleading. I have it on very good authority that Paula Pedene’s current job in the basement is absolutely essential to the Phoenix VA hospital.

      Check this out.

      It’s very important that people understand this before criticizing the VA’s personnel decisions.

  6. Best laugh I’ve had all day:

    Nobody has a clue that this is World Hepatitis Day, or Cord Blood Awareness Month.

    “I don’t feel like I’m using the full potential that God has given me,” Pedene said.

  7. she has been reassigned ? indefinitely ? to a desk in the basement.

    My desk is in the basement. It doesn’t suffer the vast temperature swings of the tower offices (from near freezing to 90 degrees over the course of one infamous day this past winter) and stays a constant 70-72 degrees F.

    Oh, she was a spokesperson? She’s probably more of a people person and joining the underground cubicles would be a torment.

  8. “Government! Three fourths parasitic and the other fourth Stupid fumbling.”

    ? Robert A. Heinlein

    “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.[Pournelle’s law of Bureaucracy]”

    ? Jerry Pournelle

  9. Paula, we’re gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B. We have some new people coming in, and we need all the space we can get. So if you could go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, mmmKay?

  10. If I wanted to PROMOTE fraud, waste, and abuse, I could do worse than reward the bad guys with paid vacations (aka “administrative leave”) and punish the whistleblowers (who actually care about the fraud, waste, and abuse) with jobs in the basement where they’ll have zero impact on anything — other than acting as examples to potential whistleblowers.

  11. Is this retaliation against whistleblowers something like the retaliation against Edward Snowden for revealing how much the Obama administration spies on all of us?

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