U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL ANNOUNCES SETTLEMENT IN CASE OF FIRED FAA WHISTLEBLOWER WHO DISCLOSED INFORMATION TO FAA SECURITY AND THE FBI CONCERNING SEPTEMBER 11TH ATTACKS
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 5/28/02
CONTACT: JANE MCFARLAND
Today, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) announced the settlement of a whistleblower complaint filed by Mr. James P. Hopkins, an International Aviation Operations Specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington, DC. Mr. Hopkins filed a complaint with OSC last fall, alleging that he was fired because he alerted his supervisors and the FBI to what he reasonably believed might be a link between one of the hijackers involved in the September 11th terrorist attacks and an individual who had received Aviation Security training at the FAA Academy.
The settlement announced today provides full relief to Mr. Hopkins, including backpay, attorney fees, and reinstatement. It was reached after OSC advised the FAA of its conclusion that Mr. Hopkins’ firing appeared to violate the Whistleblower Protection Act. That Act makes it unlawful for a federal agency to retaliate against one of its employees because they have made a disclosure of information that they reasonably believe evidences a violation of law, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to the public health and safety.
The background of today’s settlement is as follows: Mr. Hopkins began working for the FAA in May 2001 after a 20-year career as a decorated Naval Officer. Two days after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he read a Washington Post news article, which reported that at least one hijacker on each of the planes involved in the attacks had received flight training in the United States. The article identified two individuals who were linked to passenger manifests of the hijacked planes and about whom the FBI was seeking information. These individuals were Mohammed Atta, then of no known nationality, and Adnan Bukhari, from Saudi Arabia.
After reading the article, Mr. Hopkins performed a search of FAA’s International Training Program database, which contains the names and nationalities of persons accepted for training at an FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. He sought to determine whether either Atta or Bukhari had been trained at the Academy.
While he did not find a match for “Atta,” a match did appear for the name “Bukhari.” The database indicated that an individual with that surname, and also from Saudi Arabia, was trained in Aviation Security at the FAA Academy in 1991 and 1998. Mr. Hopkins took this information to his first-level supervisor. He requested that the supervisor pass the information on to FAA Security for further inquiry as to whether the “Bukhari” in the FAA database might be a relative of the “Bukhari” identified in the Washington Post article.
Mr. Hopkins’ supervisor initially denied him permission to go to FAA Security or to share the information with other staff. The supervisor stated that “thousands of people were investigating” the matter, and that “we needed to do our jobs as well.” He asked Mr. Hopkins “to return to his desk and focus on work assignments.” Mr. Hopkins then began to walk over to FAA Security himself. On his way, he was met by his third-level supervisor, whom he advised about the Bukhari information. That supervisor told Mr. Hopkins to return to his office and that they would discuss the information and what to do with it once the supervisor returned to his own office. The discussion, however, never took place. Instead, about thirty minutes later, Mr. Hopkins’ first-level supervisor placed him on administrative leave and sent him home.
As Mr. Hopkins was departing the building, a co-worker urged him to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Both the co-worker and Mr. Hopkins called the FBI. FBI investigators followed up with Mr. Hopkins that same day, expressing interest in the information he provided.
Ultimately, the Adnan Bukhari identified in the Washington Post article was cleared by the FBI. Nonetheless, at the time Mr. Hopkins made his disclosures, Adnan Bukhari was an individual that the FBI was questioning in connection with the attacks.
Eight days after Mr. Hopkins made his disclosure to FAA officials, his first-level supervisor terminated his employment. The supervisor cited what he called Mr. Hopkins’ failure to maintain a “calm and professional approach in the completion of duties, as well as evidence of sound judgment.”
Mr. Hopkins filed a complaint with OSC shortly after he was fired. After a preliminary inquiry appeared to support Mr. Hopkins’ complaint, OSC asked the FAA to voluntarily reinstate Mr. Hopkins to his position while OSC completed its investigation. When the FAA declined, OSC obtained a formal stay from the Merit Systems Protection Board on October 15, 2001. Pursuant to the Board’s order, Mr. Hopkins was reinstated into his position, where he remained, while OSC completed its investigation.
After OSC completed its investigation, Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan concluded that there existed reasonable grounds to believe that the decision to fire Mr. Hopkins was based upon protected whistleblowing: his disclosures to his supervisors and the FBI about the surname match in the FAA databases, which he reasonably believed demonstrated a substantial and specific danger to the public health and safety. She asked the FAA to provide Mr. Hopkins with a full remedy for this apparent violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the FAA agreed to do so.
Under the terms of the settlement (in which the FAA does not admit liability), Mr. Hopkins will receive, among other things, full backpay and benefits, attorney fees, and a voluntary reassignment into a position as an FAA Aeronautical Information Specialist at the same grade and pay as the position he held at the time of his unlawful dismissal. The FAA has also agreed to provide OSC-sponsored whistleblower training for Office of International Aviation supervisors and managers.
In announcing the settlement, Special Counsel Kaplan observed that the FAA had been “very cooperative in working out the terms of this settlement agreement.” She noted that the settlement “resolves Mr. Hopkins’ complaint and provides him with a full and fair remedy for his termination.” She thanked the FAA for “working with us to provide Mr. Hopkins with a remedy, thereby alleviating any need for OSC to pursue an enforcement action.”
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal agency that investigates and prosecutes complaints alleging the commission of prohibited personnel practices, including whistleblower retaliation. Pursuant to statute, after it completes an investigation, OSC has the authority to seek corrective action from a federal agency on behalf of victims of prohibited personnel practices, as well as disciplinary action against agency officials who commit such practices. OSC can obtain corrective and disciplinary relief either by voluntary settlement or by pursuing a petition for such relief before the Merit Systems Protection Board.