OSC Seal

 U.S. Office of Special Counsel
 1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 218
 Washington, D.C. 20036-4505

OSC Names Recipient of 2006 Public Servant Award
Whistleblower Leroy Smith Made Key Disclosures
About Lack of Safety at Federal Prisons

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 7, 2006
CONTACT: LOREN SMITH, 202-254-3714, lsmith@osc.gov
WASHINGTON – The agency responsible for protecting whistleblowers and safeguarding the merit system has named the recipient of the 2006 Public Servant Award.

       The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a small independent federal agency with the statutory responsibility to evaluate whistleblower allegations, named Leroy Smith its Public Servant for 2006.

       Below is the statement Special Counsel Scott Bloch, head of OSC, had prepared for the live press conference:

       Thank you Rebecca, and thank all of you all for being here. Rebecca is a great Deputy. But in her presence, I sometimes feel my wardrobe is not quite that good. Of course, you all look dressed quite properly. But seriously…today, “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.” We are here to honor a public servant and to consider those words, Public Service and Whistleblower.

       What do we really believe about the term “public servant?” What do we really think about Whistleblowers? To some of us, it’s just a word. It reminds me of a scene from a favorite movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which the main character played by Morgan Freeman, named Red, described as “a man who knows how to get things,” is before the parole board for the umpteenth time after serving forty years of a life sentence. He has become an institutionalized man, trained not to believe that rehabilitation, much less redemption, is possible. Allow me to read you that short scene, and forgive the expletives:

MAN #1: Your file says you've served forty years of a life sentence. You feel you've been rehabilitated? Shall I repeat the question?

RED: I heard you. Rehabilitated. Let's see now. You know, come to think of it, I have no idea what that means.

MAN #2: Well, it means you're ready to rejoin society as a --

RED: I know what you think it means. Me, I think it's a made-up word, a politician's word. A word so young fellas like you can wear a suit and tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?

MAN #2: Well... are you?

RED: Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was... stupid kid who did that terrible crime... wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that. "Rehabilitated?" That's a b-s word, so you just go on ahead and stamp that form there, sonny, and stop wasting my damn time. Truth is, I don't give a [damn].

       Today we are looking at another prison system. Federal employees and prisoners inhaling poisons due to the neglect of their superiors, and federal agencies whitewashing the investigation. It sounds like a Hollywood dramatization like “Shawshank Redemption,” or a John Grisham novel with wild conspiracy theories. In this case, however, workers and inmates were exposed to hazardous materials without protection, including lead, cadmium, barium, and beryllium, without adequate safety precautions, and the Bureau of Prisons and Federal Prison Industries did nothing to stop it, and indeed frustrated attempts to investigate the matter.

       These are powerful arms of the United States Department of Justice. Even if the problem is less a wholesale coverup and simply a cabal of self-interested bureaucrats, challenging it is a formidable task. And I’m sure they disagree with OSC’s approach. Nobody likes the bearer of bad news, wrote Sophocles the great Greek poet and tragedian. Challenging power is bringing bad news.

       Mr. Smith has come to Washington to be recognized for standing up and accepting the challenge. Leroy Smith, whom we honor today, came to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel with a determination to work with us to demand reform, to demand that the law be followed and that human beings, prisoners and federal workers no less, not be subjected to poisoning. Now some people might say, prisoners getting poisoned? What’s the big deal? Who cares? We do.

       For several years now, employees of the prisons, assisted by inmates, have operated a recycling program for computer monitors. As part of the process, the monitors are smashed. Smashing Computers sounds like a heavy metal rock band…you can just see them on stage smashing computers. Some days, my staff and I feel like smashing a few computer screens. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

       But here’s the problem: air quality tests showed that heavy metals and chemicals sprayed out into the air very easily and are inhaled by the folks doing the smashing. These heavy metals and chemicals, needless to say, can cause major health problems and even death if breathed in repeatedly.

       And these air quality tests were ignored. When Leroy Smith, a safety manager for United States Penitentiary Atwater in California, saw them, he knew that things would have to change. He was rebuffed repeatedly by his superiors when he attempted to suspend the recycling program to implement safety measures. Worse, Mr. Smith learned through his efforts that at least four other facilities around the country had the same recycling safety issues. Finally, he felt he had no choice but to go outside the normal chain of command – and that’s when he came to us.

       The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is the independent agency within the government that, among other things, provides a secure channel for whistleblowers, vets their disclosures, and protects them if they experience reprisal. When we determine that a disclosure merits a full investigation, we go to the agency or department in question and require them to conduct an investigation, which we then review.

       The initial investigation conducted by the Bureau of Prisons was inadequate, and we challenged it, highlighting how they had failed to address in detail the evidence presented by Leroy Smith. The investigation also appeared to have practically ignored the reports of similar problems at the other facilities. A second report from BOP was sadly inadequate. Mr. Smith pointed out problems with the report and areas where BOP ignored or downplayed evidence. The Bureau of Prisons took a technical view of the health risks and essentially acted as if actual harm would have to occur before they would make safety changes. I hope you will agree with both Leroy Smith and OSC that the standard for safety should be a little higher than that.

       I sent my findings, Mr. Smith’s evidence and other reports to the President and Congress with a letter detailing our concerns, and as a result a new, independent investigation is being conducted by the Department of Justice Inspector General.

       Protecting the lives and well-being of these federal employees and even the inmates who have been placed in the care of the government is a high calling. And it’s a good thing, I hope you’ll agree, to have checks on federal abuse of power or illegal actions that affect safety or national security. For us here at OSC, it’s what we do. For someone in Leroy Smith’s position, however, it takes real courage to stand up to one’s boss. Even more, to stand one’s ground when the boss – upper-level bureaucrats – won’t listen. That’s real courage and persistence.

       Now, was this without price? Did Mr. Smith get a dozen roses from the higher ups in the Bureau of Prisons? No, but he got the thorns, and they retaliated against him. A settlement was reached by his private attorney, and under long-standing OSC policy, OSC was no longer involved and closed that file. We have not heard from anyone that more corrective action has been sought by Mr. Smith or is desired of OSC. So what happens from here will have to await the outcome of these new and independent investigations. For we do respect the right of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice and the Attorney General to make their own decisions, and we hope they will do what is right.

       I think few really appreciate the contribution of whistleblowers in our national experience. We don’t see Whistleblower or retaliation as just b-s words, so that I can have a job or other bureaucrats can stamp forms. We see them as vital to the health of our Republic. And all of us here today are Public Servants who owe an obligation to speak the truth to government and the public, to put aside personal or organizational agendas in the name of good government and integrity. OSC tells the world about the important things being done by Whistleblowers. Then it is up to others to tell his story. That too is a form of public service. To not speak out when we know something is wrong is, in a word, to be part of the problem. Others who are still suffering in prisons where this problem is still under investigation deserve to know that one man made a difference and rehabilitated all of us by taking that risk. Mr. Smith came to Washington a free man, unwilling to be imprisoned by the inertia of bureaucracy.

       I want to recognize OSC’s public servants, particularly the Senior Associate Special Counsel, Lenny Dribinsky, please stand, who has done much to assure Whistleblowers swift and sure justice, and to thank those attorneys and investigators who contribute to the great results of OSC; and Catherine McMullen, Chief of the Whistleblower Disclosure Unit, and her attorneys are here who comb through complex documents and find more and more good disclosures. Mr. Smith has been gracious throughout, calling us a couple of months ago to tell us how much he appreciated our work, talked to me personally to thank me, talked to Catherine personally, to thank her for such a great job, and talked to Matt Glover personally for helping him and really doing a great job on his case. Matt left OSC to pursue seminary that had been something he apparently had been considering for some years. In our meeting on his exit, he told me how much he had enjoyed working at OSC, how much he liked Catherine and the Whistleblower Disclosure Unit, and how satisfying it was to work on Mr. Smith’s Case.

       I have a letter from the DU attorney, Matt Glover, who worked on Mr. Smith’s case. He congratulates Mr. Smith and notes: “The harassment that Mr. Smith reported as a result of his whistleblowing activities did not deter him from pursuing his disclosure. Mr. Smith evinced great concern for the health and safety of public employees as well as prisoners working in Federal Prison Industries’ recycling program, and it is just this sort of dedication to good government that is deserving of a Public Servant Award.”

      Just so. The whistleblowers of the past whom we have recognized stood up and were harmed for accepting the challenge, and still they made our country a safer place. Like Anne Whiteman who last year accepted the award for her reporting of long-standing cover-ups at the FAA of near misses of aircraft, or Kristin Shott who stood up to the Navy to report non-conforming welds on the catapult mechanism on several aircraft carriers in a time of war. We think those whistleblowers, like Mr. Smith, helped change the system and redeemed our faith in government.

      In the end, Morgan Freeman’s character truly becomes what his name implies – a Free man. No longer just a man who gets things, he now gets this one thing: that one person can root out corruption and abuse of power. Once he understands this, he is redeemed and can break out of the trap of fear, and break free into the light of integrity and justice. That is the effect that seeing a brave whistleblower stand up and win; it inspires the rest of us.

      All of us need to appreciate what Mr. Smith did, not just for the employees and inmates, but for the integrity of the system, and for the next time someone needs to step forward and bring the truth to light. Even if it doesn’t win him a part in a John Grisham book or in a Hollywood prison movie.



The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency and operates as a secure channel for disclosures of whistleblower complaints.  Its primary mission is to safeguard the merit system in federal employment by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially retaliation for whistleblowing.  OSC also has jurisdiction over the Hatch Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  For more information please visit our web site at www.osc.gov or call 1 (800) 872-9855.