By Ames Alexander
RAFAEL SUANES – MCTBob Whitmore, former chief of OSHA’s recordkeeping division, testifying at a 2008 Congressional hearing about companies that fail to report workplace injuries. He’s holding a photo that appeared in the Observer’s “Cruelest Cuts” series, which showed how one N.C. poultry company masked the extent of workplace injuries.
The U.S. Department of Labor will pay former OSHA official Bob Whitmore $820,000 – one of the largest federal whistle-blower settlements ever approved – under a deal that will end his four-year fight against the government.
The settlement is a major victory for Whitmore, who says he was fired because he publicly criticized his agency for allowing companies to underreport workplace injuries.
Whitmore, formerly the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s top official for record keeping, was fired in 2009 after speaking to Observer reporters who were investigating dangerous conditions and workplace injuries in the poultry industry.
“I think Bob paid a very big price for people injured in the workplace,” said Robert Seldon, a Washington lawyer who represented Whitmore. “The government paid a bigger price with a landmark settlement.
“There are people who are not going to get killed or injured in the workplace because of Bob Whitmore.”
Whitmore, who worked for the Labor Department for 37 years, filed a complaint against the agency under the Whistleblower Protection Act, a 1989 law designed to protect federal employees who report misconduct by their agencies.
Under the settlement, approved Wednesday by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Whitmore agreed not to seek employment with the Labor Department for 15 years.
“I regret that I’m not going to get the opportunity to finish what I set out to do,” said Whitmore, who turns 66 on Thursday. “That will bug me.”
But Whitmore said he hopes his settlement will encourage other prospective whistle-blowers. “Hopefully it will give people who are contemplating this (the) courage to go forward and do the right thing,” he said.
Whitmore contended that OSHA wanted to silence his criticism and stop his push for a more aggressive approach with employers who underreport workplace injuries.
In years past, OSHA’s leaders pointed to declining injury rates as proof of the agency’s success.
But in interviews with the Observer – and in a later congressional hearing – Whitmore alleged that OSHA allowed employers to underreport workplace injuries by failing to punish companies that cheat.
His comments were included in a 2008 Observer series, which showed the human cost of bringing chicken and turkey to America’s dinner tables and documented how one North Carolina poultry company hid workplace injuries.
OSHA said it dismissed Whitmore because he made colleagues feel unsafe at work.
In 2007, he confronted a supervisor who he said spit on him. When the supervisor attempted to close the door, Whitmore stuck his foot in and said that if he ever spit on him again he would “knock him into the basement.”
A Labor Department spokesman declined comment Wednesday, saying the agency does not publicly discuss personnel issues.
A win for whistle-blowers
The settlement follows a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which Judge Jimmie Reyna called Whitmore a “bona fide whistle-blower.” That ruling vacated an earlier decision by the MSPB, which had upheld Whitmore’s dismissal. Reyna argued that the board had ignored or overlooked evidence to support Whitmore’s contention that he was fired out of retaliation.
The MSPB hears complaints from federal employees who feel they have been unfairly treated or fired. In the large majority of complaints, the board has ruled in favor of the federal agencies.
The appeals court’s decision on the Whitmore case “significantly helped” federal employees who claim they faced retaliation for whistle-blowing, said Carolyn Lerner, who heads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency responsible for protecting government workers who expose wrongdoing.
“It made clear that the government faces a steep legal burden when trying to defend such retaliatory actions and it also ensured the whistleblowers have a fair opportunity to rebut the government’s defense,” Lerner said Wednesday.
Some settlements are confidential, so it’s not always clear what the federal government agrees to pay out in such cases. But Seldon, the attorney for Whitmore, said the largest previously disclosed settlement appears to be the $755,000 that the Securities and Exchange Commission agreed to pay to Gary Aguirre, an SEC lawyer who was fired in 2005.
The size of the Whitmore settlement will likely get the attention of many federal officials, said Paula Dinerstein, a lawyer who has represented Whitmore.
“It sends a message to employers: Retaliate against whistle-blowers at your peril,” said Dinerstein, senior counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit that advocates for government workers.
By John Murawski — firstname.lastname@example.org
In their quest to dismantle commissions and organizations created by Democrats in past years, N.C. Senate Republicans are taking aim at the granddaddy of them all: the state’s Rural Economic Development Center.
The proposed Senate budget defunds the Rural Center, which received about $16.6 million in the state budget last year. It also creates a new division with the Department of Commerce to oversee rural economic development.
The fight is over money, who gets to spend it, and who gets credit for spending it.
The Rural Center commands considerable power, doling out grants in 85 counties it classifies as rural, almost a third of which are no longer considered rural by the federal census authorities.
It has paid out more than $600 million in aid for sewer, water, building rehab and other infrastructure projects, and estimates it has created 33,000 jobs since 1987. The center says that its efforts have led to an additional $2 billion in investment in rural counties.
But Senate Republicans complain the legislature hands the Rural Center money year after year, but has no say in how it is spent. Critics say the Rural Center, whose board of directors has swelled to 50 members, has become bloated and inefficient.
“My concern is how we get these dollars in rural North Carolina in a quicker way,” said Sen. Harry Brown, of Jones and Onslow counties, and a co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “There is a need to change how it’s set up, to streamline the process.”
But the Rural Center, which makes sure to invite lawmakers to make rural grant announcements in their districts, has become too powerful to simply erase out of existence. It has made itself essential to many economic development officials and elected officials.
In his proposed budget, for example, Gov. Pat McCrory recommended reducing the Rural Center’s funding by $6.5 million rather than pulling the plug altogether. And the Center is counting on its considerable support in the House, which also must approve the budget, to bury the Senate’s defunding effort.
Center officials say the Senate’s plan would cripple rural economic development.
“Those are the only venture capital funds that rural North Carolina has,” said Rural Center board member Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau. “Why would you want to defund it and do away with it? I’m afraid the special needs of rural North Carolina will get lost in that reorganization.”
Proponents say their plan would increase rural aid funding.
The Rural Center was the result of a study by the N.C. Commission on Jobs and Economic Growth, inaugurated 26 years ago with the installation of UNC President Emeritus William Friday as board chairman and Democratic party stalwart Billy Ray Hall as director.
Before he joined the Rural Center, Hall was a deputy secretary, assistant director and chief economist for several state agencies under Democratic administrations. Hall remains at the helm of the Rural Center, and is paid $214,008 a year running in the 43-employee organization that spends more than $2.8 million a year on employee salaries.
Three of Hall’s deputies make more than $100,000 a year, and 23 more make more than $50,000 a year, according to information the center provided to the legislature last month. Two-thirds of the payroll comes from the state budget.
Hall issued a statement Monday saying he was shocked by the Senate defunding proposal and looks to House Speaker Thom Tillis to reinstate the center’s funding. Tillis’ spokesman, Jordan Shaw, could not be reached for comment.
Sludge spreading can be related to illness.
WOW! Say that 5 times fast: Sewage Sludge Spreading, Sewage Sludge Spreading, Sewage Sludge Spreading, Sewage Sludge Spreading, Sewage Sludge Spreading.
The city of Burlington is starting to be address this issue publicly
Ewing’s sarcoma is a rare form of a cancer. In fact so rare that only about 250 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it each year. Keeping that in mind, what is the reason that 3 teens living in the same city have been diagnosed with it? Is the environment to blame for them contracting this rare form of cancer? Could the water supply be responsible for this rare form of cancer?