Whistleblower Undergoes Ordeal by Appeal
Washington, DC — The Bush administration is putting a whistleblower through an eight-year ordeal by appeal to finally win his case, according to court filings posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One of the nation’s most conservative appellate courts has twice unanimously overruled Bush administration objections to the whistleblower’s claims but now the case is going back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, for yet a third time.
The case involves a National Park Service safety officer named William Knox who, in 2000, reported an asbestos problem at the agency’s Job Corps Center in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. In response, the Park Service first tried to fire Knox and, when that proved unsuccessful, cut his pay, transferred him and reduced his duties.
Knox filed a whistleblower complaint under the Clean Air Act. After a 29-day hearing, a federal administrative judge ordered Knox reinstated and awarded punitive damages in the amount of $200,000, one of the highest such awards against a federal agency, citing “outrageous” misconduct by the Park Service in response to “brave, dedicated and conscientious public-spirited” reports by Knox. That ruling launched a judicial odyssey that will likely continue for several more months.
In 2004, the office of U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao threw out the verdict for Knox on technical grounds. On behalf of Knox, PEER appealed to the Fourth Circuit and won; the case was remanded back to Chao’s office for disposition. In 2006, the Labor Secretary found new technical grounds to rule against Knox. PEER appealed and on May 23, 2007, the Fourth Circuit again ruled for Knox and remanded it back a second time.
In its latest action, on August 30, 2007 the Labor Department dismissed Knox’s complaint for a third time on new grounds – that the verdict was not supported by the record – that could have been raised by Sec. Chao’s staff attorneys years ago.
“Under the Bush administration, a whistleblower must survive the torture of the damned to get justice,” stated Adam Draper, PEER staff counsel, who filed the latest appeal to the Fourth Circuit. “Let’s hope that the third time is the charm for Bill Knox.”
The asbestos problem that Knox exposed at the Harper’s Ferry Job Corps Center has still not been fixed, however. Workers, students and members of the public who were and are exposed to friable asbestos have not been examined for adverse health effects. Moreover, none of Knox’s supervisors received even a reprimand for their response to the situation.
“Bill Knox’s experience is a textbook case of what is wrong with our system for protecting environmental whistleblowers,” added Draper. “From the point of view of workers’ rights, this Secretary of Labor should be re-titled Secretary of Toil and Trouble.”