it looked as if leroy smith was going to get some recognition after all. A safety manager at a federal prison in California, he had challenged his bosses, risked his job, and endured threats of retaliation to expose hazardous conditions in a prison computer recycling program where inmates were smashing monitors with hammers, unleashing clouds of toxic metals. Now the federal government was flying him to Washington, D.C., as a whistleblowing hero. The Office of Special Counsel (osc), the federal agency charged with protecting government employees who expose waste, fraud, and abuse, had scheduled a catered event honoring Smith as "Public Servant of the Year." The office's director, Scott Bloch, had prepared a flowery speech that was later posted on the agency's website, referencing Sophocles and The Shawshank Redemption: "In the end, Morgan Freeman's character truly becomes what his name implies—a Free man," it read. "One person can root out corruption and abuse of power. Once he understands this, he is redeemed and can break out of the trap of fear, and break free into the light of integrity and justice. That is the effect of seeing a brave whistleblower stand up and win; it inspires the rest of us."
Only Bloch never delivered that speech. Just minutes before the September 7 ceremony was to begin, Smith received word that the event was off because a relative of an osc staffer had died. It seemed "kind of fishy" to Smith; indeed, an osc source told me the excuse was so transparent as to be "ludicrous." The real problem, the source said, was that Bloch—a Bush appointee who, employees say, shares his boss' antipathy for dissent—had learned that Smith was planning to speak at a press conference sponsored by the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (peer), a persistent critic of the osc. The peer event went forward as planned, and at it Smith told the press that he felt the osc "bears some examination." True, he had been vindicated, but many of his colleagues who'd made similar disclosures had been ignored, and the prison conditions had not changed. "I cannot help but feel that my experience is a beacon of false hope for public servants who are trying to correct wrongdoing," he said.
Then again, given the current climate for whistleblowers, false hope might be all the hope there is. A series of court rulings, legal changes, and new security and secrecy policies have made it easier than at any time since the Nixon era to punish whistleblowers; the climate has deteriorated in recent years with the Bush administration's emphasis on plugging leaks and locking down government information. Bloch's tenure—he is the first director of the whistleblower office to face a whistleblower complaint of his own—has only added insult to injury.
It's come to the point where some advocates now counsel federal employees against coming forward, period. "When people call me and ask about blowing the whistle, I always tell them, 'Don't do it, because your life will be destroyed,'" says William Weaver, a professor of political science at the University of Texas-El Paso and a senior adviser to the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition. "You'll lose your career; you're probably going to lose your family if you have one; you're probably going to lose all your friends because they're associated through work; you'll wind up squandering your life savings on attorneys; and you'll come out the other end of this process working at McDonald's."
Weaver says that most of the people who contact him are so determined, they go ahead with their disclosures anyway. "I see what the result is," he sighs. "It's destruction from one end of their lives to the other."