U.S. Office of Special Counsel
1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 201
Washington, D.C. 20036-4505
U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL ANNOUNCES GROUP SETTLEMENT OF WHISTLEBLOWER RETALIATION COMPLAINTS FILED BY FORMER AND CURRENT EMPLOYEES OF THE BIGHORN NATIONAL FOREST
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 4/22/03
CONTACT: JANE MCFARLAND
Today, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) announced the favorable settlement of eight whistleblower retaliation complaints filed by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) on behalf of both former and current employees of the U.S. Forest Service’s Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. Under the settlement, the Forest Service will pay a lump sum amount of $200,000 to be divided between the complainants. The agency will also provide corrective personnel actions for two of the eight complainants, mitigating a 14-day suspension to a reprimand, and providing an interim bridge appointment to a former employee who experienced a break in federal service after he was removed for refusing to accept a geographic reassignment.
The genesis of these complaints dates back to 1994, when OSC’s complainants wrote a letter to their Regional Forester, disclosing that the Bighorn Forest Supervisor had created a hostile working environment for his employees. The employees also alleged that the Supervisor had engaged in questionable forest management practices that adversely affected the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of the environment, by permitting local ranchers to over-graze their livestock on public land and by failing to maintain an effective reforestation program on the Bighorn National Forest. The employees’ whistleblowing led to a personal visit from the Regional Forester who met with each of the employees. It also led to various internal agency investigations of the forest’s management practices to inconclusive results. Eventually, the Forest Service reassigned the Forest Supervisor to a non-supervisory position in the regional office.
Subsequently, one prominent whistleblower lost her job after her ecology position at Bighorn was abolished. She was geographically reassigned to a different forest in another state. Another prominent whistleblower agreed to accept a reassignment after being advised that his career at the Bighorn was in jeopardy. He was later passed over for promotion to a leadership position in the regional office.
In 1997, the Forest Service picked a new Forest Supervisor to manage the Bighorn. Within a year, the new manager, acting upon the advice of a management review team recommendation and input from the interim manager and other forest leaders, decided to abolish 14 positions in reorganization. Through a reorganization tool unique to the Forest Service known as Workforce Reduction and Placement System (WRAPS), the new Forest Supervisor proposed to abolish the jobs of five of the six whistleblowers remaining at Bighorn. Over the next two years, management used WRAPS to reassign four of the OSC complainants to other duty stations, including one to a key technical position in Arkansas that he had never performed before and had no prior experience in. One complainant, who had his job abolished, was able to retain employment on the Bighorn only after environmental interest groups and various congressional offices lobbied the agency on his behalf. By 2000, in the aftermath of the reorganization, only two of the eight complainants remained on the Bighorn.
A lengthy OSC investigation found reasonable grounds to believe that prohibited personnel practices had occurred and approached the Forest Service for voluntary corrective action on behalf of the complainants. After protracted negotiations between the agency, the complainants and OSC, a settlement was reached.
Special Counsel Kaplan stated, “Everyone deserves praise for their efforts to resolve this difficult case including OSC’s complainants, GAP and the Forest Service.” She further noted, “This was an unusually complex retaliation situation given that it occurred over a lengthy period of time and through a dubious reorganization that took advantage of WRAPS procedures.” Kaplan concluded, “It reflects OSC’s commitment to pursue even the most complex retaliation cases on behalf of federal whistleblowers.”
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 retaliation for whistleblowing. Pursuant to statute, OSC, acting on behalf of victims of prohibited personnel practices, has authority to seek voluntary corrective action from federal agencies or through administrative litigation before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.