Park Police whistleblower still hopeful
Editor’s note: September 2006 brought a twofold encouragement to Teresa Chambers. On Sept. 21, the Merit Systems Protection Board published a 2-1 decision in support of her termination. This action allows Chambers to pursue the issue in federal courts. On Sept. 28, a judge denied the Department of Interior’s request to dismiss the Privacy Act suit that Chambers filed in 2005 asking to see her performance appraisal from 2003.
Teresa Chambers rose to eminence in 2002 when she was sworn in as the first female chief of the United States Park Police, an agency within the Department of the Interior that protects landmarks, monuments and parks nationwide. Since then, she has attracted the limelight for different reasons — her firing in December 2003 after publicly stating that her agency was underfunded and understaffed, and her ongoing court battle to get her job back.
Chambers awaits the decision of her appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (a quasi-judicial agency that hears cases involving federal personnel issues and protects employees from partisan political attacks), hoping it will reverse the decision of an administrative judge who upheld her firing on Oct. 6, 2004.
She is also waiting to receive a copy of her 2003 performance assessment by her immediate supervisor, which was prepared just before the incidents that led to her firing. Chambers sued the Department of the Interior in federal district court in February to obtain this assessment. She believes the assessment, which the National Park Service recently said it had found after previously denying its existence, will support her case. NPS has not decided whether it will release the document to Chambers.
“I am the eternal optimist,” Chambers told the First Amendment Center Online recently. “I am hopeful that the full [Merit Systems Protection Board] … dismisses the remaining charges and returns me to my job. If they do not, we are prepared to move to federal court for whatever administrative charges remain.”
Chambers claims she was fired because of talks she had with Deborah Weatherly, a member of the Congressional Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, and with Fran Mainella, director of the park service, and because of an interview she gave to Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold in November 2003. She argued that her disclosures were protected by whistleblower laws and by the First Amendment.
There are a number of federal laws that protect employees from retaliation if they disclose their employers’ illegal activities to proper authorities. But in most cases, the whistleblower must prove that the action taken by the employer was directly in response to their disclosures and that the information disclosed revealed an illegal activity of public concern.
Chambers’s immediate supervisor, NPS Deputy Director Donald W. Murphy, placed her on administrative leave on Dec. 5 and sent her a letter on Dec. 18 stating his intent to fire her owing to six charges. The charges included improper budget communications and making public remarks regarding the security of areas in Washington, D.C., that the Park Police protects. The Park Service offered to drop all charges if Chambers agreed to clear all future media and congressional contacts with Murphy in advance. Chambers refused, saying doing so would undermine her ability to do her job effectively. In January 2004 her legal team issued a rebuttal of the charges.
In his letter, Murphy took issue with Chambers’s communication with Weatherly regarding the fiscal year 2005 federal budget, saying she was not allowed to speak with anyone about the not-yet-released budget. Murphy also cited statements Chambers made to the Post’s Fahrenthold for a Dec. 2, 2003, article headlined “Park Police Duties Exceed Staffing.” Fahrenthold quoted Chambers as saying that the Park Police did not have enough officers to protect many areas in Washington, D.C., and that there were unarmed guards at many locations. According to the article, Chambers also said she had to “cover a $12 million shortfall for this year and has asked for $8 million more for next year.”
A June 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office echoed some of the concerns Chambers expressed in 2003. Commissioned by Congress, the report, titled “Actions Needed to Better Protect National Icons and Federal Office Buildings from Terrorism,” acknowledged that NPS employees often were spread too thin and urged the Department of the Interior to be more transparent so the public and government could better assess its needs.
The Bush administration’s fiscal year 2005 budget included a $3.3 million increase in funds for the Park Police, not the $8 million increase Chambers claimed was necessary.
Murphy also charged Chambers with refusing his direct order to reassign an employee and brought up a 2002 incident in which Chambers was reprimanded for using a government vehicle for personal purposes.
On Jan. 29, 2004, Chambers asked the Office of Special Counsel (an independent federal agency that protects employees from prohibited personnel practices, such as whistleblower violations) to reinstate her immediately, and the office agreed to investigate the circumstances of Chambers’s removal. The Office of Special Counsel ceased its investigation, though, in June when Chambers filed an individual right of action appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
On Oct. 6, Administrative Judge Elizabeth B. Bogle dismissed two of the six charges against Chambers but ruled that her firing was appropriate. Bogle determined that Chambers had not engaged in whistleblowing activities and, accordingly, that she was not protected under whistleblower laws. The actions of the Park Police did not meet standards of “gross mismanagement” that whistleblowers must prove, Bogle said in her opinion.
“None of these disclosures appears to allege any real agency wrongdoing,” Bogle wrote. “And her disclosure of information to the Washington Post appears to be nothing more than an attempt to pressure the agency … to increase the USPP budget by publicly airing her concerns about the ability of the USPP to protect the public places under its jurisdiction without a budget increase.”
Bogle also rejected Chambers’s claim that her interview with The Washington Post was free speech protected by the First Amendment. Although Chambers disclosed information of public concern, Bogle wrote, the USPP’s interest in efficiently serving the public outweighed the need for such a disclosure.
Chambers’s legal team submitted a 239-page appeal of the decision on Dec. 15, asking the Merit Systems Protection Board to reverse Bogle’s decision and reinstate Chambers as Park Police Chief. The appeal alleged that Bogle acted improperly.
Meanwhile, Chambers, upon learning that the National Park Service was accepting applications for the position of chief, filed her application before the Dec. 27 deadline, effectively applying for her old job. But Chambers said she never heard back from the NPS. Instead, Dwight E. Pettiford, who had been a deputy under Chambers, was hired on March 28, 2005.
“While my case is awaiting review and while I await my return to full duty,” Chambers said, “having a chief in the interim is probably a good thing for the United States Park Police organization and its employees.”
In related legal action, Chambers filed a lawsuit in federal district court in February 2005 against the Department of the Interior, demanding access to her performance evaluation from 2003. Murphy testified that he had prepared Chambers’s evaluation, but the Interior Department denied that it existed. On March 10, just over a week after Chambers filed suit, the department said it had found the evaluation. But it still has not given it to her.
Chambers said she had not taken the appeal of her firing to a federal court yet because “federal employees must exhaust all administrative remedies” first. But if she does not win this administrative appeal, the next step, she said, will be to appeal to a federal appeals court.
Chambers has had significant support throughout her legal battle. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization that has publicly supported Chambers, accepts donations to the Honest Chief Fund to help cover Chambers’s mounting legal costs. Numerous law enforcement groups have publicly supported Chambers, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Chambers even counts five senators and six representatives among her supporters. Chambers’s husband started a Web site (HonestChief.com) in December 2003 to provide updates on her case.
Chambers received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Center for Women and Policing in February 2004, honoring her 28-year law enforcement career, which included a stint as chief of police in Durham, N.C.