Tallahassee — The state scientist in the middle of controversy about how polluted the waters of South Florida are today filed a whistleblower complaint, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The action will likely set up a court battle that will delve into the murky world of how Florida measures water quality as well as how it certifies water bodies as “impaired” by pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.
Thomas R. White, a scientist with almost twenty years of experience with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) filed a formal “Whistleblower Complaint” with the state Commission on Human Relations. White’s complaint charges DEP with terminating him on February 16, 2007 because he had earlier informed DEP management, including the Office of Inspector General, about embarrassing problems with improper management oversight of laboratory and field operations and the data entry system (Laboratory Information Management System) used by the state laboratory.
White, a senior chemist in the DEP’s Port St. Lucie laboratory was terminated by Acting District Director Timothy Rach after White attended a predetermination hearing on January 30, 2007. White’s removal letter does not address any of the issues raised by White at the hearing. Initially charging White with data fraud, DEP changed the basis of termination to falsification of state documents but did not specify which particular documents were allegedly altered or how. White adamantly denies that he falsified any records.
Ironically, DEP has now indicated it intends to use the lab data White generated to identify impaired waters in Florida, a process for which the agency will receive federal grant money.
“The DEP has sunk to a new low with this twisted action against Tom White,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney who is leading White’s legal team. “DEP has yet to release the documents that spell out exactly what Tom White is supposed to have done.”
In May 2006, White provided information to the DEP Inspector General’s Office about problems within the laboratory, including violations of lab protocols and harassment. That IG investigation was about allegations by co-workers against White’s supervisor, who resigned before the investigation concluded.
Simultaneous with that investigation, DEP initiated an internal audit of the Port St. Lucie lab. The audit found problems, the bulk of which occurred during the time when White’s former supervisor had been in charge of the lab. When White responded to the internal audit by notifying Tallahassee’s Central Lab that his superiors had known of the deficiencies all along he was ordered to rewrite his response so that the allegation was removed.
Shortly thereafter, DEP placed White on paid administrative leave and three months later terminated him.
“This case will be the first test for the Crist administration as to how it handles inconvenient truths,” added Phillips.
It will now be up to the Commission on Human Relations to investigate the matter. If the Commission does not act on the complaint or rejects it, White may file a lawsuit in circuit court and seek a jury trial. White is seeking reinstatement and back pay from the DEP as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.