Whistleblower Prevails after Appeal Challenge by USGS
Microbiologist Targeted for Reporting Animal Welfare & Biosafety Failures
Washington, DC —The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) unlawfully retaliated against one of its own scientists because she reported serious breaches of biosafety in research laboratories, according to a new ruling by the U.S. Merits System Protection Board, the administrative court overseeing the federal civil service. In addition, the MSPB directed the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action against USGS managers found to have unlawfully retaliated.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) argued the case as part of its legal representation of the USGS scientist, Eveline (Evi) Emmenegger, a Research Microbiologist with the Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC) in Seattle, Washington, where she has worked for over 30 years. Her specialty is studying high risk aquatic viruses that are foreign to North America and managing the highest biocontainment laboratory at the research facility.
She authored many articles in peer-reviewed journals and enjoyed uniformly glowing personnel ratings until she filed a formal Scientific Integrity complaint against WFRC managers for ignoring and then failing to fix maintenance failures in high-level biosecurity labs that endangered research staff, compromised the welfare of animal subjects, and caused the release of dangerous viruses and other fish pathogens into the environment. One such release went undetected for six months into Seattle’s popular Lake Washington.
USGS dismissed her Scientific Integrity complaint after deciding, without a thorough investigation, that the problems were not intentional. Shortly thereafter, USGS moved to fire her on performance grounds over alleged weaknesses in one of her research papers. In 2022, after an MSPB judge ruled in her favor finding that the action was illegal retaliation for whistleblowing, the USGS appealed that decision to the full MSPB. In its ruling this week, two members of the three-member board (the third member has not yet been confirmed) found –
- Ms. Emmenegger “proved her affirmative defense of whistleblower retaliation” and had clearly established that the USGS had an “institutional motive to retaliate”;
- The USGS and WFRC supervisor had weaponized the peer review process to develop pretextual reasons to fault the manuscript, which was later published with moderate revisions; and
- The termination action was so technically flawed that it had to be withdrawn by USGS.
“This ruling is a complete vindication of Evi Emmenegger,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins, noting that these lab malfunctions keep recurring because the USGS facilities are not independently accredited as virtually every other federal research labs are. “The absence of independent accreditation forces USGS scientists to take the career risk of becoming a whistleblower in order to report problems.”
Under the Whistleblower Protection Act every final MSPB ruling indicating that illegal retaliation has occurred must be referred to the Office of Special Counsel “to investigate and take appropriate action,” because, as the judges reiterated, “there is reason to believe that a current employee may have committed a prohibited personnel practice”. In this case, the principal retaliators involved with the firing, Jill Rolland (Center Director) and Maureen Purcell (supervising scientist), were promoted. The facilities supervisor, Kyle Sato, was transferred. Apart from the Special Counsel, USGS could initiate its own investigation of the actions of the responsible managers.
“The law says that managers who engage in illegal reprisal should be punished but we rarely see this reciprocal justice actually carried out,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this case also illustrates how poorly the Scientific Integrity process works inside the Department of the Interior which houses USGS. “Interior’s Scientific Integrity Policy is written in a fashion to ensure that managers are never found at fault. Unfortunately, the current White House reform effort completely avoids addressing these glaring weaknesses.”
In an otherwise completely favorable ruling, the MSPB did reject PEER’s claim that Ms. Emmenegger had not been fully restored to her prior job duties, as some work tasks and committee structures had been reconfigured upon her return to the WFRC.