When a federal worker named Bertrand G. Berube warned that the government's housekeeping agency had let many government buildings in Washington, D.C. deteriorate into hazardous condition, he performed a potentially valuable public service.
But its value was badly eroded when the General Services Administration ignored Berube's warnings and fired him for pressing them.This week Berube was vindicated when the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered the government to reinstate Berube, who had been a member of the Senior Executive Service and is the highest-ranking executive to win an administrative decision ordering his reinstatement for whistle-blowing.
But there are sharp limits to how much satisfaction anyone can take from Berube's reinstatement, which the GSA still could impede by appealing it to the courts.
If Berube gets his job back, it will cost the taxpayers $350,000 in retroactive pay plus as much as $400,000 in legal fees. Then there are the hidden costs involved in the government's failure to correct the hazards that Berube exposed. Those hazards were recently confirmed by studies showing that a number of D.C. agencies are working in "dead buildings," contaminated by asbestos and other hazards. The Pentagon, incidentally, is said to be the worst government building in the D.C. area when it comes to fire and health hazards.
The most disturbing aspect of this case, though, is the five years it took before the Merit Systems Protection Board acted to reinstate Berube.
This case should give fresh impetus to new legislation in Congress that would provide more protection for whistle-blowers like Berube. Among other things, the legislation would let whistle-blowers carry their appeals directly to the Merit Systems Protection Board, instead of appealing first to the agency that harassed and fired them.
One other lesson should be learned from this episode. Evidently the GSA routinely deferred needed building repairs just so the agency could claim budget savings. But that's false economy. As Berube puts it:
"It's like buying a new Mercedes-Benz and not buying a quart of oil for it. It saves a dollar now, but you end up having to buy a new engine."