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,
WASHINGTON – The agency responsible for protecting whistleblowers and
safeguarding the merit system has named the recipient of the 2006 Public Servant
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.