USDA Fires Employee for Expressing Personal Opinion
Chilling Effect of Excessive Message Control Over Technical Experts Decried
Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has dismissed one of its top organic standards experts because he expressed personal opinions on technical matters, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case is at odds with Obama administration calls for free exchange of ideas among experts and has broad implications in that the employee did not contradict official policy but was aiding an advisory panel in formulating recommendations for what the official policy should be.
On November 23, 2010, Mr. Mark D. Keating was terminated from his position as an Agricultural Marketing Specialist with the National Organic Program (NOP) based on communications he had with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in his professional capacity. Keating has twenty years of experience in various aspects of organic farming but was hired only last April, making him a probationary employee with limited rights to appeal his dismissal. PEER is asking USDA to reverse the action.
Keating’s job description called for “wide latitude to exercise independent judgment” to “influence, motivate, and persuade the very diverse constituent population of the NOP” yet he was dismissed for violating the following directive from his supervisor:
“The role of the NOP Standards Staff on these calls is to serve as technical experts, provide advice, perhaps pose questions to the NOSB (i.e., have you thought of how we will actually implement this through rulemaking?). Please do not interject personal opinions on issues, especially when no NOP position has been developed.”
“These contradictory directions only serve to chill candid discussions among experts,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that frank, provocative exchanges can make the resulting policy better. “Federal employees should be more than robots, limited to reciting only the company line.” In calling for Keating to be restored, PEER argues that his termination –
- Violates Obama administration policies encouraging “free and open inquiry” by scientists and other technical specialists; and
- Is at odds with policies adopted by other agencies, such as the Department of Interior, promoting “free exchange of ideas” while formulating policy.
“It makes no sense that a technical expert in one agency is rewarded for speaking his or her mind but that person would be fired for doing the same thing at USDA,” added Dinerstein, noting that hasty personnel action against Shirley Sherrod this past summer caused USDA great embarrassment. “We need people like Mark Keating in federal service who bring common sense and real world experience to the table.”