Jeff Ruch is executive director of PEER, a service organization helping federal, state, and local agency scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers, and other professionals uphold environmental values within public service.

Monday, 11 Dec 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Most days begin with a phone call. This particular call came from an Arizona State Parks naturalist named Matt Chew. Like many people who call PEER for the first time, Matt had a problem, a big problem. He had just been handed a notice of termination, effective three days hence. His offense was free speech — or, even worse, published free speech.

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Matt had written an essay which appeared the previous month in the Boston Globe. The subject of the essay was the wildly popular new state park at Kartchner Caverns, outside of Phoenix. The essay, titled “A Theme Park Grows Beneath the Ground,” discussed the inherent trade-offs of high human visitation on natural places.

State Parks Director Kenneth Travous ordered Chew’s termination on the grounds that the piece brought “discredit and embarrassment to the State.” Director Travous did offer Matt an out — Travous proposed that in lieu of dismissal Matt could first resign and then “enter into an Independent Consultation Agreement” for $10,000, if Chew would promise to “refrain from any further communication with [the media] regarding the past, present or future activities of Parks or its employees…” The document also stipulated that the terms of the agreement must remain secret.

Matt did not sign the hush-money contract. Instead he called PEER. Within 36 hours of Matt’s call, I assembled a legal team anchored by one of the best law firms in Phoenix. Faced with the threat of this legal counterattack, state officials caved (as it were) on the eve of the appeal hearing — Arizona State Parks reinstated Matt Chew with full back pay and benefits.

Not every case is as dramatic as Matt Chew’s. More often, I see public agencies working behind the scenes to intimidate employees from sharing information with the public — their true employers. Agencies typically use gag orders or vaguely worded nondisclosure policies as the principal tool to keep their people quiet.

I see public servants in environmental agencies as the public’s paid experts and eyewitnesses. When these specialists cannot speak out about environmental problems, we are all deprived of vital information affecting our health and well being. Usually, this information is embarrassing to the very agencies charged with enforcing pollution protections, because bad news implies or demonstrates negligence or worse on behalf of the department. As a result, agencies erect intricate barriers against the free flow of information and enact policies to punish public employees who commit the crime of candor.

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Fortunately, these bureaucratic restraints on speech rarely survive in the full light of day. In order to ensure effective exposure, PEER helps conscientious public servants free vital information that is otherwise locked away in cubicles, laboratories and field stations.

Not surprisingly, my phone stays pretty busy.

Tuesday, 12 Dec 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

This evening, I actually got misty-eyed watching one of PEER’s members and clients receive an award for public service from an organization called Taxpayers for Common Sense. Whistle-blowers are not commonly honored in their own time; they usually struggle in obscurity. Moreover, this honoree is especially deserving of recognition.

Dr. Donald Sweeney is a senior economist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: He is one of the few Ph.D.s in economics within the Corps — one of their best and brightest. Like most employees who come to PEER, Don contacted me because he was not allowed to do his job. He was in charge of the largest economic study ever undertaken by the Corps — the cost-benefit analysis of a proposed multibillion dollar expansion of the entire lock and dam system for the Upper Mississippi River and the Illinois Waterway.

He was removed from that study because he would not cook the books. When top Corps officers ordered that key numbers be altered, Dr. Sweeney used PEER to blow the whistle and trigger official investigations. In his case, the investigations completely vindicated his disclosures. In so doing, Don Sweeney has shaken the Corps to its roots.

Last week, an internal Pentagon investigation confirmed that top Corps officials manipulated cost/benefit studies in order to vastly exaggerate the need for massive new civil works projects. The report found serious flaws not only with the specific study cited by Dr. Sweeney but with the entire Corps planning process. The report also concluded that the Corps had departed from its traditional “honest broker” role to become “an advocate” for building large inland navigation projects, citing institutional biases flowing from a fiscal system based on project financing and “a customer service” model that placed the needs of the barge industry and other system users above the public interest.

These scathing findings were possible because Dr. Sweeney was not alone: His colleagues provided key corroborating testimony. For example, another senior economist called the system “corrupt.” Although many have long suspected that the Corps cooked its books, Sweeney and his colleagues published the cookbook and gave the public a front-row seat in the kitchen.

As a result of the report, Defense Secretary William Cohen is recommending disciplinary action against two top Corps commanders: Major General Russell Fuhrman, Deputy Chief of Engineers, and Major General Phillip Anderson, Commander of the Mississippi Valley Division. In addition, the report triggered an investigation as to whether Major General Hans Van Winkle, Director for Civil Works, illegally spent funds without the required justifying studies. The National Academy of Sciences has also undertaken an analytic review of how the Corps conducts cost-benefit studies.

It takes courage to blow the whistle. This decision profoundly affects one’s family, often destroys one’s career, and sometimes costs one’s peace of mind. So, it particularly warms my heart when I see whistle-blowers “win” and help remedy the conditions that caused them to risk their professional lives. Each victory by a single whistle-blower also makes it just a little bit easier for the next public servant who is morally compelled to step forward.

For my part, it is a distinct honor to work for such people.

Wednesday, 13 Dec 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Sometimes public employees are treated as symbols rather than as people. Because he or she represents the government, the person wearing the ranger’s uniform is subjected to attack, abuse, and intimidation. When the employee’s agency is too timid to protect its own people, PEER is called upon to fill that role.

For the past five years, I have taken calls from an array of agency biologists, range conservationists, and law enforcement officers who are in harm’s way, yet have no backing from above. My job is to protect public employees who are trying to protect our natural resources:

  • In Apache County, Ariz., a U.S. Forest Service range conservationist was beaten by ranchers. When the U.S. attorney declined to prosecute, PEER filed a civil suit against the ranchers and won an award (and an apology) for the public employee.
  • In Catron County, N.M., state and federal water quality inspectors were “arrested” by a mine owner on public land using an invalid trespass writ. PEER sued the mine owner for malicious prosecution and harassment.
  • In
    Imperial County, Calif., U.S. Bureau of Land Management rangers are currently exposed to extreme danger and assault. PEER put their plight on the front page of every newspaper in the state.

Today, the staff at PEER and I are working to force the BLM to protect its people who are merely enforcing the law. The setting is the vast California Desert District (CDD), stretching from the Mexican border to the Sierra Nevada foothills and containing some of the most sensitive desert habitats for endangered plants and animals in the state. Last month, as part of a settlement to environmental litigation brought by PEER, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and other groups, nearly 50,000 acres of Algodones Dunes within the CDD were closed to off-road vehicle traffic.

An internal BLM report, which PEER obtained and published on our website, concedes that “near riot” conditions prevail in the desert during holiday weekends, with “lawless elements” making the desert “unsafe” for the public and understaffed law enforcement officers subjected “to life threatening situations.” The report notes that conditions have markedly deteriorated during the “last two to three years,” finding:

  • Inadequate public protection for both visitors and officers. Last Thanksgiving weekend, BLM rangers were pelted with full beer cans and other objects, including a bag of fecal matter. In 1999, the BLM recorded nearly 2,000 incidents in the Desert District, including explosives, numerous firearms, incendiary devices, and assaults.
  • A woefully understaffed BLM law enforcement presence unable to meet routine needs let alone cope with influxes of more than 100,000 visitors on some weekends. The BLM is spending less than half of authorized amounts on law enforcement, leaving only 29 of 46 enforcement slots in the California Desert District filled.
  • A poorly equipped force lacking crowd control training, riot batons, gas masks, and even a reliable radio system. Several vehicles purchased for law enforcement purposes have been diverted for other uses.

Virtually none of the recommendations contained in the report have been addressed by the BLM. PEER’s staff lawyers and organizers are scrambling to use all the available tools of law, media, and politics to make sure that both the desert and its guardians remain healthy. We will keep the pressure on until we get it done.

Thursday, 14 Dec 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

I work inside the fabled “Beltway.” Every morning, I subway to our Dupont Circle office. Most days are spent on phone calls, meetings, and memo writing (what I call “pushing paper in the public interest”). What makes this different is what I do.

We at PEER run a vast information laundromat. Information flows in from the occupants of government cubicles, laboratories, and field stations across the country. We then work with the source to scrub source identification from the information, so that there are no “fingerprints.” Sometimes this process takes days, weeks, and months, involving use of tools such as the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a clean or “through the front door” copy of key documents. Once we have a clean, no-fingerprint copy, PEER releases it to the world, generating critical media attention, official investigations, legislative interest, and — most important — agency reexamination of what it is doing (or not doing) now that the agency has been “outed.” This strong dose of sunlight into the agency’s dark corners is usually enough to do the job on the matter at hand.

The question employees ask us each day is, “What good are environmental laws if they are not enforced?” From the vantage of my swivel chair, the overwhelming problem in implementation and enforcement of environmental laws is that agencies are deciding behind closed doors to turn away from their duty, ignore problems, and take a dive.

When the spotlight of public attention is turned on, only then does an agency hasten to act aggressively to protect public health and resources. PEER’s job is to help the agency’s own internal watchdogs — concerned employees — keep the spotlight on the agency, so managers are always aware that anything taking place within the agency can appear (without fingerprints) on the front page of the newspaper the next day. If that expectation of exposure becomes common, then and only then, will we have planted the seeds of reform.

Still, this all may seem like a hell of a way to run a railroad. Unfortunately, the reality of life in our government bureaucracies is that the most important information about the agency record is not in its public reports but in its internal records, shielded from outside eyes. Employees who step forward to reveal agency secrets risk their careers, financial security, and peace of mind. Moreover, the employees willing to take these risks for the public good are precisely the people who we should want to keep in public service rather than be driven out in a wave of retaliation and recrimination.

We call this the PEER paradox: On paper, at least, American civil servants are the most legally protected workforce on earth. Public employees are protected by the First Amendment and other constitutional rights on the job, because their employer is the government. Many have civil service due process protections in addition to the relief accorded by whistle-blower laws. Yet, despite these rights, on controversial issues, when political pressure is being applied, we find as intense an intellectual and informational repression within the American public agencies as found in totalitarian countries.

To help employees safely serve the law and their conscience, PEER offers the avenue of “anonymous activism.” Symbolic of this approach is the only product PEER sells, other than reports: underwear — boxer shorts carrying the legend “Undercover Activist” on the butt and the PEER logo on the leg. This garment (which, by the way, makes a wonderful holiday gift) allows employees to display their true colors at work.

So, I run an information laundromat and I sell underwear. That explains why I am on the phone so much.

Friday, 15 Dec 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Virtually every day, I hear an account from a public employee about an agency manager who is rewarded for doing the “wrong thing” — failing to enforce or follow the laws the agency is sworn to uphold. Meanwhile, the employee who does the right thing is marked for retribution. This reverse accountability makes some public employees terminally cynical and convinced that there is little they can do to improve things.

Although it may seem that this reverse accountability is some sort of natural law for bureaucracies (with Dilbert serving as Sir Isaac Newton), public agencies are simply used to covering their asses first and asking hard questions only if backed into a corner. In short, public agencies are out of practice at holding themselves accountable.

That is where PEER comes in. We act as a personal trainer for the bureaucracy to get it started exercising those flabby accountability muscles. With employees serving as a human biofeedback loop, PEER workouts pinpoint the trouble spots for extra conditioning. Early in these workouts, the agency will tense its muscles, get extremely defensive, and fight the process, with the result that it is usually very sore the next morning.

The key to success is repetition. If one day an agency manager sees an incriminating internal document on the front page of the morning newspaper, that is a workout (as evidenced by the sweat stains on the dress shirt), but its effects go away. If, however, that same manager sees a similar expose every day for a week or a month, his or her accountability muscles get stronger. O
nce the agency is conditioned to expect that its dirty laundry will routinely be aired, only then is there reform — the agency is conditioned to clean its own wash and do the job the public expects.

So, my typical day at PEER revolves around the following type of accountability exercises:

  • Filing a criminal complaint naming the agency manager who gave an illegal order.
  • Petitioning the U.S. EPA to remove state environmental enforcement authority in a particular case in which the state director is in bed with the violator.
  • Conducting an all-employee survey about internal obstructions in which field specialists can give a “thumbs up or down” on the agency’s direction.

In agencies in which there are no negative career consequences for managerial misconduct, this PEER therapy works bureaucratic wonders:

  • More environmental violations are referred for prosecution.
  • Targeted agencies develop antipollution initiatives to deflect some of the media heat.
  • Problem managers often quit or are reassigned.

Results are usually not instant. Like most workouts, accountability exercises are hard work. No equipment is needed, except public servants committed to change.