A Breakfast among Peers: Environmental Whistleblowers Have Some Stories to Tell

By Nixon, Will | E Magazine, September-October 1993 | Go to article overview

A Breakfast among Peers: Environmental Whistleblowers Have Some Stories to Tell


Nixon, Will, E Magazine


According to stereotype, the government whistleblower sits at an empty desk all day, stirring coffee, waiting for reporters to call. He or she may be dynamite on 60 Minutes, exposing dangerous fraud and incompetence, but back in the office the lonely hero is a disgruntled employee, a pariah around the water cooler, a naive moralist who won't adapt to an imperfect world.

But this morning in Manhattan, seated around a coffee shop table in the Madison Hotel, the six members of a new group called PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) must have forgotten their stereotypes at home. They're friendly, joking about the hotel's steam heat, which seems to be turned up for an Arctic winter, not the spring day outside. They're impressed by the Big Apple, or at least by the five-story-tall balloon of Arnold Schwarzenegger that they saw ruling Times Square last night, promoting The Last Action Hero. And they're keeping the waitress busy circling with her pot of coffee, until Jeff DeBonis brings the gathering to order by explaining the purpose of PEER.

An idealist who once served in the Peace Corps, DeBonis joined the U.S. Forest Service because he loved the out-of-doors -- and chafed for 12 years in an agency biased to the timber industry. One day his boss asked him to visit a site in Oregon's Willamette National Forest to do the paperwork for a timber sale. Instead, he found the green hell of logging already run amok in the valley, with huge landslides left by earlier clearcuts. "It was beyond belief," he says. Back in the office, he wrote a report based on scientific research done by the Forest Service itself. "My district ranger said, 'You can't write that. You've just written an appeal for the environmentalists.' It was easier to blow the whistle than to continue to lie." In 1989, he founded AFSEEE (Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics) which has grown to 11,000 members.

His story can be found at many agencies. Only the industry changes, from mining to grazing to agriculture. So last January, DeBonis helped launch PEER for reformers from the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and state government agencies. PEER now lobbies the Clinton team and the media with meetings and position papers. And it offers members legal support from the private Government Accountability Project (GAP). But DeBonis says, "Once you become a whistleblower, you're on the wrong end of the power curve. The damage is already done." If PEER succeeds, whistle-blowers will be able to do their best work at their desks, not on 60 Minutes. But for now, they must take their story to the press.

How much does the public not know about the inner workings of these agencies, E Magazine asks the table? "Tremendous...Tons...It's unreal...It's scary," answer four voices at once. Then they offer some proof.

Phillip Doe, a senior manager from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Denver, Colorado, resembles Jack Kemp with his perfect silver hair, crisp blue suit and friendly team spirit. The Bureau runs over eight million acres of land and has built dams and canals for crop irrigation across the West. Doe has helped organize a quarter of the roughly 250 people in his office into a reform group for more honest government.

"Congress passed a law in 1982, 'The Reclamation Reform Act,' which it really hasn't been, and I was in charge of writing and implementing the rules and regulations for administering the Act. I constantly came into conflict with agribusiness and its lawyers, so after six years I was unceremoniously moved to hazardous waste, which I knew nothing about. During those years, as more and more concessions were made to special interests, I started leaking information to Congress and the press, and eventually I went on 60 Minutes. Since then, I haven't made any long term career plans or invested in business cards! [He has criticized giveaways that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, such as giving Stockdale, Arizona hundreds of federal acres for a PGA golf course, a polo club and an exclusive restaurant. …

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