Washington, DC — The new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Abigail Kimbell, was responsible for the largest reprisal action ever undertaken against agency whistleblowers, according to documents posted today by two whistleblower advocacy groups. In all, Kimbell purged 44 whistleblowers while she was Supervisor of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. Of those 44, eight ultimately won a $200,000 settlement with the agency in 2003, while Ms. Kimbell was promoted to Regional Forester.
The two advocacy organizations, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP), are urging Ms. Kimbell to adopt a zero tolerance policy against whistleblower retaliation and pledge to remove managers who engage in reprisals. Tomorrow, Ms. Kimbell officially takes over as Chief of the Forest Service, a position not subject to Senate confirmation.
“The promotion of Abigail Kimbell sends a chilling message to the scientists, law enforcement officers and other specialists working within the Forest Service,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Ms. Kimbell can either allay these fears by taking affirmative steps to protect honesty or she can reinforce these concerns by inaction.”
In the late 1990’s the staff at the Bighorn National Forest elevated a number of concerns, including –
- Illegal timber sales and sweetheart concessions to favored timber companies;
- Failure to meet reforestation commitments to restore habitat; and
- Violation of wilderness protections and road construction through Native American sacred sites.
The whistleblowers’ original complaints resulted in the forced resignation of the previous Bighorn forest supervisor in 1997. After Kimbell became the new forest supervisor she purged virtually all of the original whistleblowers, in many cases replacing them with less experienced workers. At one point, Ms. Kimbell even sought criminal prosecution of her own staff.
Of that original group, eight resisted and filed formal whistleblower retaliation complaints with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the independent agency whose mission is to protect whistleblowers. After an investigation, OSC found the eight had suffered illegal retaliation. Following that finding, the eight were awarded a $200,000 settlement along with personnel relief and cancellation of all disciplinary actions brought against them by Kimbell, under an agreement brokered by OSC.
“OSC investigates only 8% of whistleblower complaints and only backs employees in cases where the retaliation is unarguable and unambiguously crude,” said GAP Legal Director Tom Devine, noting that the Bighorn complainants constituted the largest group of whistleblowers that OSC has backed in its 28-year history. “This appointment signals contempt for the merit system, unless Ms. Kimbell sets out to prove that she has learned her lesson.”