Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, whose landmark federal whistleblower case against the US Environmental Protection Agency resulted in passage of the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act), is being fired from the EPA. (Photo: Stacey Cramp)
The senior EPA analyst whose historic anti-discrimination case led to legislation protecting whistleblowers is being fired from her job at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo sees her ouster as the ultimate act of retaliation, a payback for continuing her fight to protect federal employees who speak out against wrongdoing in government agencies.
The agency has long taken a stand of not commenting on Coleman-Adebayo's claims, only to deny that the EPA has ever discriminated or retaliated against her.
The election of Barack Obama has given Coleman-Adebayo both hope and concern. "I see triumph, but I also see vulnerability in what lies ahead," she says.
Writing in The New York Times six years ago, Coleman-Adebayo optimistically envisioned the possibilities that would come from passage of what was the first civil rights law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). At the time, her optimism was justified. No FEAR passed by a unanimous act of Congress - the first time a major piece of civil rights legislation was so honored. Coleman-Adebayo stood directly behind President George W. Bush when the act was signed into law.
Change was in the air, but not for long and not for everyone. "I have been the continued target of reprisal and harassment, a common fate of whistleblowers," she says.
"Many of us with a long history of service in federal agencies are now seeing an intentional personnel purge, especially at more senior staff levels. It seems that those who express initiative, creativity, and new ideas are the first to go," said Coriolana Simon, another former EPA employee.
Every two years, or 90 days after acceptance into federal service, all employees must now take No FEAR training based on the veteran analyst's successful legal case, Coleman-Adebayo v. Browner. Carol Browner, defendant and former EPA administrator, is now serving on the president-elect's transition team and was reported by the Washington Post to be the "obvious choice" if the new administration names an "environmental czar."
This possibility worries Coleman-Adebayo and, she says, "many of us who lived through the Browner administration."
She adds that, "Despite the jury's verdict, despite the legislation that flowed directly from that verdict, and despite a Government Accounting Office corroboration of the jury's findings, Ms. Browner never reprimanded any of the managers under her authority who were guilty of discrimination and retaliatory tactics."
Coleman-Adebayo says Browner made no attempt to comply with the No FEAR law. "She delivered a chilling message to her subordinates within the agency, saying that it would require more than something called the No FEAR Act to change business as usual at the EPA."
There is no question that Coleman-Adebayo's unexpected departure from the agency where she has worked since 1990 will have ramifications for the new administration. The senior analyst is highly respected and has a substantial following; in fact, Washington insiders have speculated that the new administration might well select her as the next EPA administrator. She certainly is well qualified.
Regardless, Dr. Coleman-Adebayo, whose personal struggle from a poor background to a prestigious university doctorate parallels that of the president-elect, will be out of a job by the end of the year. It is rumored that her dismissal - and that of a handful of others - is a move to "clean out" the agency, to get rid of "troublemakers" before the present administrator, Steve Johnson, leaves office.
The plaintiff's problems at EPA began in 2001, when she blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation whose operation in South Africa was causing vanadium poisoning throughout an entire community. Her insistence that the problem be corrected led to a pattern of discrimination and harassment against her, and no quick fix for the people suffering and dying from vanadium exposure. She reports having been called a "whiner" and other, more profane names for taking a stand unpopular at the agency.
Ultimately, Coleman-Adebayo and the EPA met in a courtroom, where the jury found in the plaintiff's favor and against the federal agency. What happened that day led directly to the No FEAR Act.
It was only the critical first step in an incomplete journey, according to Coleman-Adebayo.
"I urge the Obama administration, within the first 100 days, to endorse the No FEAR II and Congressional Disclosures Protection acts - two bills currently before Congress that continue the spirit of the original legislation." They do so, she says, while providing the means to enforce compliance by managers who flout the rules.
Coleman-Adebayo's situation is not unique in the waning days of the Bush administration, even with the new whistleblower act in place.
Recently fired Department of Commerce employee Janet Howard said, "The purge is taking place across the board in every agency in the federal government. It seems like a well-thought-out plan to eradicate African-Americans and others who speak out against discrimination and corruption."
A senior manager who has been in the Department of Transportation for over 20 years said, "I have several witnesses who are willing to come forward about my current supervisor targeting me. The agency has failed to investigate this, and this is true at the highest levels of management within the agency."
Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, the personal representative of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to three presidents and Congress in the 1960's, and the Congressional representative of the District of Columbia for 20 years, said, "The Bush administration, using tactics reminiscent of old Soviet-style coups, is embedding its foot soldiers deep into the federal government in order to sabotage forthcoming Obama initiatives, while simultaneously terminating federal employees whom Bush officials fear would be supportive of President-elect Obama's goals. It is a two-step process - step one is to get rid of whistleblowers who would expose wrongdoing and step two is to burrow operatives whom they know will continue the wrongdoing."
When Coleman-Adebayo shared optimism for passage of new protective legislation at a recent American University symposium based on the newly released book, "The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion," she had no idea her days as a federal employee were numbered. Present at the symposium and offering support, along with fired British secret service officer Gun, was whistleblower icon Daniel Ellsberg. It was an impressive gathering, made more so by the dedication and determination of those present.
There is no question that hope for the future was in the air. And hope is what it's all about at the moment.
Marcia Mitchell is co-author with Thomas Mitchell of "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq War" and "The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War."