Once the Whistle Blows, Who Follows Up with the Reforms? ; Protecting Government Employees from Undue Pressure Is Critical to Bureaucratic Reforms

Article excerpt

When the United States Army Corps of Engineers had trouble proving that a proposed billion-dollar construction project on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers was worth the cost, it tackled the problem head-on: It got rid of the economist who brought them the bad news.

In general, flood control, irrigation, transportation, and recreation are positive values most people can agree on. But for years, environmentalists, budget hawks, and other critics have charged that the Army Corps is too cozy with the barge operators and agri-businesses (and their political patrons, including members of Congress) who benefit from replumbing natural waterways with dams and locks.

That was confirmed last week when the Army inspector general, following a 10-month investigation, reported that "institutional bias" had led the corps to favor large construction projects whether or not they made economic sense.

Investigators cited pressure by Corps leaders to increase the agency's budget - even if it meant distorting economic analysis.

If there is one hero in this story, it is Donald Sweeney. Dr. Sweeney is the senior Corps economist who blew the whistle on what he sees as "serious violations of rules, laws, and regulations at the highest levels of Corps management that could have resulted in gross fraud, waste, and abuse of federal resources." When, after five years of working on the plan, he reported his concerns to his superiors, Sweeney was taken off the project.

With help from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Sweeney took his complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency charged with protecting government whistle- blowers and investigating their allegations. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) presented the evidence to the Army which, in essence, acknowledged and confirmed Sweeney's allegations.

It's not easy, especially for career government employees, to challenge the massive bureaucracies for which they work. "It takes great courage and perseverance to come forward as Sweeney did, and to provide an honest perspective to investigators, as Sweeney's colleagues did, in cases where higher level officials and supervisors are accused of serious misconduct," says Elaine Kaplan, head of OSC. …