Monday, December 1, 2008

Transition or Coup D'état?

Transition or Coup D'état?

Kevin Berends

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During the transition period there is a silent coup d'état occurring inside the federal government in the form of last-minute firings and dubious personnel placements. The easy response to this practice is: "That always happens during the transition period and it isn't even newsworthy. That's how Washington works - always has, always will." Perhaps, but considering how pervasively the Bush administration has flouted every branch of government, from ignoring Congressional subpoenas, to ignoring Supreme Court rulings, to violating the Geneva Conventions, to profuse and legally feeble signing statements - it's clear that embedding operatives loyal to the party and policies jettisoned by the voters in the election is tantamount to laying mines throughout the government.

As if this isn't enough, while the outgoing administration lays mine fields to sabotage President-elect Obama's initiatives that could threaten the status quo, it is also terminating outstanding federal employees whom the current administration can assume, correctly, would be supportive of the new president's policies. In the case of Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who received her Notice of Proposed Removal from the Environmental Protection Agency on October 30, 2008, the message is clear: remove the person who has demonstrated like no other person within the EPA a determination to ensure that what the agency protects is the environment (as opposed to the corporations and other interests whose practices harm the environment but yield staggering profits) - and a chilling effect on other conscientious workers will have been achieved. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo's landmark court victory in Coleman-Adebayo v. Browner (former EPA Administrator Carol Browner,) represents the most serious challenge the status quo has ever seen. Thus, decapitate the head and the uncontrolled beast of conscientious federal workers will fall. Last week, this particular purge prompted a letter to beleaguered outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson from Congressional Liaison to the White House Chris Van Hollen, urging reconsideration of Dr. Coleman-Adebayo's firing, and the postponement of any further action until the transition is complete.

This poisonous cocktail of embedding shills within the federal government while terminating exemplars imitates the old Soviet-style purges, where dissidents were forcibly removed and expelled to the Gulag. For courageous federal employees, however, our Siberia is a fate of poverty and disenfranchisement. Further, the embedding and termination process allows Bush-sympathetic bureaucrats - whose allegiance is to the failed president's cronyism above concerns for an endangered environment - to keep "political insiders" within the bureaucracy to sabotage the Obama administration's best efforts to bring the EPA back into sync with the best scientific evidence we have - that there is no time to waste before environmental damage will reach the point of no return.

In the midst of severe economic downturn, terminated federal employees are sure to find themselves on the street without the possibility of future employment, because the government refuses, in many cases, to provide favorable recommendations for them. In many documented instances, the only thing these employees are "guilty" of was having blown the whistle on illicit practices within the federal system. Yet their firing often results in a twenty- to thirty-year gap in their employment history, because the "scarlet letter" of being fired discourages others from hiring them. This, of course, has cascading effects where many fired employees have lost their homes and have been added to the ranks of the unemployed and to the rising number of people having to rely on welfare to survive. While this is designed to produce a chilling effect and spread a cold climate of fear and intimidation throughout the federal system, it will do nothing to cool an at-risk planet.

Employees fearful that talking to the press will lead to them being identified and fired are controllable employees. This is where we need to give the devil his do. President Bush signed the No FEAR Act into law so that such retaliation and discrimination could be banished from the status quo. Or at least so it would appear to have been. Truth be known, No FEAR has been easily circumvented, for lack of enforceable code. But that's where the No FEAR II and Federal Disclosures Acts could come in - at exactly the right moment when the electorate, its new president, and a willing Congress - quite apart from looking the other way while decent people have their careers destroyed - could erase decades of business as usual.

Both acts would put teeth into existing Whistleblower protection law: by holding managers who tolerate discrimination, retaliation - and eleventh-hour purges - personally accountable for those crimes; by expediting claims against those managers through the courts, and by financial incentives for whistleblower attorneys.

The day when the old familiar rejoinder of "This is what always happens during the transition period" is a thing of the past and is as close as being within reach of Congress's vote and the president's pen.

Kevin Berends was a co-founder of Lake Affect Magazine, and produced the independent television program Streetlevel in Rochester, New York. He has produced documentaries, is a reporter for WHYNotnews, and has covered the post-hurricane Katrina housing controversy in New Orleans, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and whistleblower protection rights and related legislation in Washington, DC.

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