Defense Department file photo

Pentagon Watchdog Takes the Reins of Sexual Assault Whistleblower Investigations

Victimized Army National Guard Officer shares traumatic story with multi-agency staff.

Retired Lt. Col. Teresa James., a veteran of the Iraqi Freedom campaign who won a Bronze star for logistics leadership in Anbar Province, accepted a tough assignment from the Defense Department Office of Inspector General.

As the principal in the first sexual assault whistleblower retaliation case substantiated by the IG, she spoke on Thursday to some 200 staff and whistleblower advocates as part of the IG’s fourth annual Worldwide Hotline Outreach event at the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va.

James sometimes teared up as she described the aftermath of her own sexual assault in 2006 by a superior officer in the Army National Guard and the subsequent harassment and downturn in her career that forced her into medical retirement and legal expenses in a still-going battle for relief. “I left a combat zone and came into firefight in my own backyard with people I should be able to respect and trust,” said the West Virginia native.

Her public testimony on her success using the IG’s hotline came as the DoD watchdog began a heightened role as the Defense Department’s main unit for handling sexual assault whistleblower retaliation cases in time to mark the July 30 National Whistleblower Appreciation Day established by Congress in 2013.

Henceforth all sexual assault whistleblower retaliation cases in the military will be handled by Defense IG rather than the individual services.

The goal is to “empower our community” to encourage whistleblowers to come forward to report wrongdoing, said Marguerite Garrison, deputy inspector general for administrative investigations. “Without effective collective responsibility, we would be far less effective in our ability to respond.”

She cited past whistleblower heroes such as New York City policeman Frank Serpico, who exposed 1960s police corruption, and former Air Force auditor Ernie Fitzgerald, who was famously fired by President Nixon for disclosing cost overruns in the C-5A transport plane.

Back in 2010, Garrison noted, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency had set up multiple agency hotline working groups, but the process is now more centralized. Her office’s outreach to whistleblowers “will be even stronger,” she said, with the coming appointment of a GS-15 level employee as whistleblower protection ombudsman.

(The post is currently held by Patrick Gookin, who doubles as director of the DoD Hotline, and who conducted an afternoon session on investigator best practices.)

The new team has authority to take a “more expansive legal interpretation in investigating reprisals,” and to see that “internal whistleblowers have the same rights as those on the outside,” Garrison added. “We have a ways to go, but we plan to complete all investigations in 180 days.”

Nilgun Tolek, director of Whistleblower Reprisal Investigations, said she had recommended to one of the military’s Judicial Proceeding Panels in February that the DoD IG handle all sexual assault reprisal cases, numbers of which have risen from about five a year to 50-60, she said. She also recommended “appropriate resources to improve training in trauma and a dedicated team,” she told reporters.

That team numbering seven, which convened last month, “is already trained to some extent in such issues as expedited transfers” for stressed whistleblowers, Tolek added. A good case showing reprisal would include factors such as a “protected communication, unfavorable actions, a responsible official and proof of causal connection.”

The new activism to protect whistleblowers among DoD IG leaders also comes at a time when that office itself has been criticized by lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office, advocacy groups and some former employees for sluggishness and allegedly being too intolerant of whistleblowers.

One agency that has drawn such conclusions in certain cases is the governmentwide independent Office of Special Counsel, two of whose top officials also presented at the DoD IG Worldwide Hotline Outreach event.

Shirine Moazed, OSC’s director of training and outreach, described her office’s investigations into the Air Force staffers’ mishandling of service members’ remains at Dover Air Force base in Delaware, a case brought to light by whistleblowers. “We’re eager to learn other agency practices,” she said. “We know that we’re sometimes the first voice someone hears when they’re attempting to allege wrongdoing, when so often they are really stressed. We sometimes forget that we have this great ability to affect people’s lives and effect change in government.”

Adam Miles, OSC’s deputy special counsel, said his agency’s Disclosure Unit is the closest thing to the DoD IG whistleblower hotline, though that unit does not perform its own investigations. “We identify trends and issues when things come up over and over again, and identify correction action,” he said. His office receives about 2,000 allegations of waste or wrongdoing a year, of which 60-80 ended up being referred to agencies for further reviews.

Lt. Col. James told the audience, “If someone had told me six years ago that I would be on this stage as whistleblower, I would have said, ‘When pigs fly.’ ” Whistleblower “has a stigma attached to it—you’re labeled a troublemaker, a snitch, not a team player,” she said.

James waited six years after her sexual assault in a hotel room in Little Rock, Ark., to come forward. “I blamed myself and was ashamed,” she said, and eventually the state statute of limitations ran out. When she was set to return from an overseas deployment to the West Virginia National Guard in 2010, she was required to communicate with the officer who assaulted her to get her next assignment and, she thought, a promotion. He wrote to her that there is “no plan to reassign you, no promotion, and we can discuss it over a beer,” she said.

Years of continued workplace harassment of her and her female colleagues followed, James said, until she finally went to the adjutant general with her complaint. Though it was substantiated, the perpetrator was reprimanded and allowed to switch to telecommuting. He eventually retired with full benefits on medical disability, she said. In 2012 she received her “first act of reprisal,” a negative performance review—her first in 35 years of service.

After trying several other hotlines, James finally found her way to the DoD IG’s investigators, and now expresses gratitude that “the high end of the Defense Department acknowledges the importance of a report of misconduct.”

But the exhausting investigation took three years, and eventually James felt the need to flee West Virginia and retire to Florida. Though her criminal and civil charges of retaliation are substantiated in a still-unreleased report, she has shelled out $10,000 of her own funds for attorneys helping her gain relief from the Army secretary and Army board of corrections.

“Three years is a very lengthy process,” James said, “But things are moving in the right direction.”