May 18, 2009
Via Hand Service
The Hon. Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
We write you concerning action recently initiated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (“USACE”) to curtail the First Amendment right of our client, Ms. Bunnatine Greenhouse, a USACE whistleblower, to freely testify before Congress. As outlined below, the timing of the action and the action itself constitutes a gross violation of Ms. Greenhouse’s First Amendment rights and constitutes illegal harassment of a witness. We expect that you will take prompt corrective action.
I. BUNNY GREENHOUSE IS A NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED WHISTLEBLOWER
Ms. Greenhouse is a nationally respected “whistleblower” that, as the Army Corps’ first African-American female member of the Senior Executive Service, blew the whistle on contract abuse occurring during the run-up to the Iraq War. Her plight was widely recognized by elected leaders such as Senator Byron Dorgan. See Senator Dorgan’s statement before the Democratic Policy Committee, and the statement of Congressman Rahm Emanuel (Attachment 2). Indeed, the Democratic Policy Committee cites to Ms. Greenhouse as its key support for the Major Findings of the Democratic Policy Committee Oversight Hearing on Iraq Contracting Abuses, issued on April 22, 2008.
On May 14, 2009 United States Congress House of Representatives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held a hearing entitled “Protecting the Public from Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” and formally requested that Ms. Greenhouse appear and testify. See, Chairman Towns to Greenhouse. Ms. Greenhouse agreed to appear in her personal capacity and testified about the waste, fraud and abuse she observed while she served as the United States Army Corps of Engineers Procurement Executive and Principal Assistant Responsible for Contracting (“PARC”).
Ms. Greenhouse testified how, during the ramp-up for the invasion of Iraq, she raised concerns directly with representatives to the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to Senior Contracting Officials from the Department of the Army, and to her Command, that the planned award of a $7 billion sole source, no compete, cost plus contract to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (“KBR”) was improper and unlawful; that the process was plagued by conflict of interest, and that the scope and duration of the “compelling emergency” contract was unconscionable. Ms. Greenhouse also testified about the retaliation she faced, and how she was illegally removed from her position at the PARC for the Army Corps. Her case is an important example as to why whistleblowers in federal service need real protections. Ms. Greenhouse’s written testimony is attached.
II. MS. GREENHOUSE WAS RETALIATED AGAINST AFTER TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS
On May 14, 2009 Ms. Greenhouse testified before Congress. (Attachment 4). Less then six hours later the retaliation began. That same day, at 6:23 p.m., an email originating from the USACE Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Stephen Hill, was issued to Ms. Greenhouse, subject line: Congressional Hearings – your role and process. The email specifically directs Ms. Greenhouse to henceforth advise her chain of command of her intent to testify, submit all proposed testimony to her command for review and approval, and prohibits Ms. Greenhouse from testifying until she obtains approval from the Department of the Army. The email concludes by stating that these directives are mandatory and may not be altered regardless of the specifics of the hearing.
This directive violates the United States Constitution. Censorship is illegal. Every American, including every federal employee, has the constitutional right to “petition Congress for a redress of grievances.” Government officials should not be allowed to use their offices to threaten or intimidate federal employees from freely exercising their Constitutional rights. Such abuse has often been used to shield improper activities from the light of day and to intimidate federal employees from aggressively policing major special interests. Many of these bureaucrats go on to obtain highly paid positions in the very companies they were sworn to police.
These abuses must end. The threat issued to Bunny Greenhouse at 6:23 p.m. contradicts your stated goal of accountability in government. In this regard, the website of the Office of the President-Elect discussed the need for enhanced whistleblower rights to empower federal employees to bring information to light. It states:
- Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
III. GREENHOUSE MAY BE FIRED THE NEXT TIME SHE TESTIFIES
The 6:23 p.m. email constitutes a direct threat to Ms. Greenhouse. Ms. Greenhouse will stand up and invoke her constitutional right to testify before Congress in her personal capacity without government censorship. When she does so, she will violate a specific directive from her Command and will face termination for insubordination. We trust that you will immediately take action to prevent such an injustice and violation of the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps of greater significance is the chilling effect the directive would have on every federal employee if left unaddressed. Federal employees need to be advised of their right to testify, in their personal capacity, without prior censorship and authorization by government bureaucrats who may have a vested interest in keeping information from Congress and the public. The vast majority of federal workers will not risk their jobs in order to vindicate their right to testify before Congress. Allowing this censorship to continue will facilitate an atmosphere of intimidation aimed at halting the flow of information to Congress and the public.
The illegal directive issued to Ms. Greenhouse is currently serving its insidious goal – preventing Congress from hearing the truth about waste, fraud and abuse in government. Until you personally take strong and swift action, it will remain business as usual within the federal work force. Federal employees will remain scared to blow the whistle – and the few who have the courage to step forward will suffer unending retaliation. The only law currently contemplated to correct this type of abuse is H.R. 1507. During the campaign, your office pledged to support this law (previously introduced as H.R. 985). Now that you are the Chief Executive of the federal government, your strong personal support for this law is critical. Make no mistake about it, until H.R. 1507 becomes law, harassment and intimidation of whistleblowers in the federal service will remain the rule, not the exception. Until this bill becomes law the American people will continue to be the biggest losers-as their tax dollars are wasted and those doing the bidding for special interests escape proper policing.
We are hand delivering this letter to the White House today. We are willing to work with you and your staff to ensure that the federal work force is not subjected to ongoing retaliation.
Michael D. Kohn
Attorney for Bunnatine Greenhouse and
President of the National Whistleblower Center
Stephen M. Kohn
Attorney for Bunnatine Greenhouse and
Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center
David K. Colapinto
Attorney for Bunnatine Greenhouse and
General Counsel of the