Washington, DC — In an unusual move, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has withdrawn a proposed termination of a biologist for being “subversive” and revealing “administratively controlled information” in sending e-mails to environmentalists and other agencies. Instead, the agency has substituted a new letter proposing dismissal on the grounds of causing “embarrassment” and putting the agency in a “negative light,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The renewed effort to fire the biologist for reporting violations of law and improprieties sets up a new test for federal whistleblower laws. Pending a final agency decision, Charles (Rex) Wahl, a GS-12 Environmental Specialist, remains on paid administrative leave, as he has been since mid-September. In October, Reclamation also dismissed Wahl’s wife Cherie from a temporary clerk-typist position.
“The Bureau of Reclamation knows it wants to fire Rex Wahl but apparently cannot make up its mind as to why,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who is defending Wahl against the charges. “The last time I looked, embarrassment did not constitute a legal justification for firing a civil servant.”
The agency action concerns seven e-mails Wahl sent to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Army Corps and an environmental group between February and May 2006. In each message, Wahl alerted the recipients as to potential problems in filings made and reports compiled by Reclamation. Originally, the agency had cited 11 e-mails from Wahl, including one to his ex-wife who now works at FWS, discussing a video of wetlands in the Colorado River region.
Despite narrowing the original charges, the agency claims removal is the appropriate punishment because, among other reasons, “failure to take action would negatively impact other employees’ confidence in management’s willingness to take disciplinary action.”
Wahl has worked at Reclamation for the past 2 ½ years and earned excellent performance evaluations. His background includes a stint as the head of an environmental organization, Forest Guardians. With this background, reclamation hired Wahl to keep stakeholders, including environmentalists, abreast of agency “actions and initiatives” as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“Reclamation is embarrassed because its attempts to falsify Colorado River project filings were exposed,” Dinerstein added. “The agency managers who were responsible for these misdeeds, not Rex Wahl, should be the ones facing discipline.”
The new proposal to terminate was dated December 21st and Wahl was directed to respond within 14 days of his receipt of the notice. The decision-maker for the agency has been elevated from the Area Manager to Rick Gold, the Upper Colorado Regional Director. Once it receives Wahl’s reply, the agency is under no deadlines to act but, given the delays, a decision is expected soon thereafter.
If dismissed, Wahl may seek an immediate hearing before the federal civil service review agency, called the Merit Systems Protection Board. In addition, PEER has already filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor claiming that Reclamation’s actions violate the whistleblower provisions of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Solid Waste Disposal Act.