The memo, e-mailed to employees and signed by Deputy Director Donald Murphy, said that employees have the "absolute" right to be "free from all retaliation," and advised that employees suspecting abuses should report them to the Office of the Inspector General. It did not, however, address whether workers can voice concerns to Congress or the media.
Murphy's memo comes nearly seven months after he placed Teresa Chambers, chief of the Park Police, on administrative leave for speaking with the Washington Post about budget and personnel shortfalls. Chambers remains on paid leave but has not been permanently removed.
On Monday, Chambers filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board in an effort to return to work. While "the Department of Interior could make that happen…with just the flick of a pen," the board could also order her reinstatement, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Chambers' lawyers claim that she has a constitutional right to speak with the press and that the Park Services' actions violate several federal laws as well as the First Amendment. If the board finds evidence of illegal personnel practices, it can order an investigation of responsible officials, Ruch said.
"She's in a weird legal limbo situation," Ruch told Government Executive. "They haven't acted on these charges because they're laughable."
The complaint will lead to an evidentiary hearing and will allow Chambers' lawyers access to secure internal documents. It will also allow them to question top Interior officials under oath, according to a PEER press statement.
Murphy's memo sends mixed signals in light of the Chambers case, Ruch said. The memo not only pledges protection for those who report problems but also promises to sanction managers who retaliate against whistleblowers. "The employees that have contacted us were guffawing," he said. "They thought it was almost hysterically hypocritical."
Murphy did not return calls for comment.
Chambers' case may have influenced the release of the memo, which was dated Feb. 20, 2004, but sent last week, Ruch said.
The only way for Park Service officials to convince employees that they are being sincere is to fire managers who obstruct employee complaints, "starting with the author of this memo, Don Murphy," he added. Otherwise, he said,what current and former Park Service employees call the "Chambers Effect" will continue.