GAP's in your defense.
It was one of those "60 Minutes" shows that if you didn't see, you certainly heard about. And if you saw it, you haven't felt the same about chicken salad since. It was all there: Hidden camera shots of workers in gore-spattered smocks gutting strung-up carcasses streaming by on an overhead conveyor. Dank sheds so dark you could barely see the putrid pools of God-knows-what on the shop floor. The highlight was when one of the birds fell off its hook onto that floor and a worker picked it up and put it right back on the line! It was as if someone had made a movie of The Jungle.
Not that any of this was news to consumer watchdogs or public interest groups. For years they've pushed chicken processors to clean up. But going against corporations it helps to have more on your side than file folders and newsletters. That Sunday night, the chicken industry got a hot rinse of America's universal solvent-publicity.
The notion that the media's bright lights are crucial for reform is what the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is all about. Making the government more accountable isn't just a job for the General Accounting Office, the inspectors general, and congressional committees-private organizations like GAP are important too.
Chicken in a bucket
At the Simmons Industries Inc. plant in South West City, Missouri, Department of Agriculture (USDA) grader Hobart Bartley says he was told by USDA superiors to approve chickens infected with salmonella, riddled with cancer, oozing with pus, and smeared with feces. "The damn thing would be half rotten, but they'd want me to put a grade on it."
Bartley was disgusted with the USDA'S Streamlined Inspection System (SIS) for chicken, a cost-cutting measure in place since 1983. SIS means fewer government inspectors have less time to check more chickens to see if they're fit for human consumption. Bartley complains that the speeded-up system, reported to shuttle up to 90 chicken carcasses by per minute, makes it impossible to check properly for diseases like salmonella.
One day Bartley happened to look into the eight-foot-high vat of water called the chiller," where as many as 10,000 chicken carcasses are left to float, soaking up moisture to increase their selling weight. Dried blood, feces, and hair were floating in the chiller along with the dead birds. Diane Sawyer called it a "fecal soup." It was, recalls Bartley, "a pool of disease and scum." After the vat had been drained one day, Bartley saw "about one foot of sludge ... clumps of manure and |chicken~ feed" left caked along the bottom. The chickens stored in that vat end up on our dinner tables.
About 50 feet from Simmons's main facility is the protein plant," where chicken parts deemed unsuitable for humans-chicken heads, feet, and feathers-are boiled. They subsequently show up in your pet food listed as "meat by-products."
Bartley claims the protein plant stank so badly one day that he decided to take a look. It wasn't his job, but he was curious. What Bartley found sounds like a scene from a bad late-night horror movie: Heaps of chicken parts were "infested with maggots two feet deep ... the pile would actually move like Jello."
Frustrated with the USDA, Bartley eventually took his complaints to GAP, and GAP took it from there, supplying the research and constant media pressure required to turn some hard-to-believe tales out of school into something like "fecal soup."
This private nonprofit group on E Street NW in Washington, D.C. is staffed by nine lawyers-most fresh from law school-paid between $22,000 and $40,000 a year to be a whistle blower's best friend. The group was born in 1975, its parent the unapologetically leftist Institute for Policy Studies. GAP hires no outside public relations or advertising people, relying instead on supporters and its own media successes to pass the word.
GAP'S motto could well be "Don't sue, publicize." It represents whistleblowers in court only as a last resort. GAP'S legal affairs director Tom Devine says, "Our job is to win a publicity campaign so that a lawsuit isn't necessary. When you're in a lawsuit, you're fighting a defensive battle .... We like to attack."
GAP reports that its current docket include whistleblowers from corporate America who allege wrongful dismissal after having charged that their companies violated safety and health regulations And GAP is representing Defense Department employees who claim that department regulations effectively block information from Congress. Two clients are Food and Drug Administration scientists alleging that the agency is failing to keep unsafe drugs out of the food chain. Another is the former director of Virginia's Department of Waste Management, who argued that the state must clean up a toxic landfill spanning two counties-and got fired for her efforts. And GAP currently has three CIA cases- one involving allegations that the agency supplied misleading information to Congress in connection with the Iran-contra scandal.
When GAP chooses to take a case to the media, its credibility and persistence are key. "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt is typical in wanting to flush out the motives of any group that brings a whistleblower's gripe to the program's attention. "If I find out that a group is always on left-wing causes, or right-wing causes," says Hewitt, "I get suspicious. You've got to be very careful of ideology."
Although GAP'S credibility is high, the organization was involved in at least one incident in which the truth was a little twisted. An article about poultry plants published under Tom Devine's byline in the magazine Southern Exposure claimed: "Since workers are not allowed to go to the bathroom, they sometimes have to use the floor. Chickens that fall in the urine and excrement are routinely picked up and returned to the line." This passage suggests that chickens sometimes come into contact with human feces because employees are forced to defecate where they work. And this is false-when pressed, Devine admits that while the workers sometimes urinate near the assembly line, the excrement in question comes strictly from the chickens. Devine's original draft read: "Whistleblowers report that employees are not allowed to leave the floor to go to the bathroom, so frequently they have to use the floor-where chickens fall, routinely are picked out of the sewage and returned to the line." Devine claims that the added false assertions in the published article were not his doing, but that of the magazine's editors. Maybe so, but Devine's original sentence certainly implies contact with human feces. Although this episode is fairly minor since all accounts agree that there were serious health hazards at the plant, it still serves as a reminder of a failing that GAP, like any other publicity driven organization, had best watch out for: the temptation to gild (or in this case, smear) the truth.
Has GAP succumbed to that temptation on other occasions? Ralph Nader says that GAP is "credible" and that Devine is a "solid guy." John Richard, a lawyer who has worked with Nader for 11 years calls GAP "among the best in the public interest community . . . . They don't puff things, they're not sloppy, and they're not ideologues." Tony Roisman, formerly of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, who worked with GAP representing whistleblowers in the nuclear power industry, says, "They were meticulous in my experience . . . they made sure what came out was fight."
Tom Devine first took Bartley's story about chickens to a CBS "60 Minutes" producer GAP had dealt with previously. Nevertheless, it took months of prodding a series of junior and senior producers before the network would commit to the story, and then three months for it to put the piece together. With a layout of the Simmons plant provided by GAP, CBS was able to position its hidden cameras to catch the most unsanitary targets before being discovered. As a result, 30 million people saw what Hobart Bartley saw.
Getting the story out that spectacularly protected Bartley from being fired. (Out of disillusionment, he later quit.) For a long time, Simmons officials ignored Bartley's repeated warnings of unsanitary conditions. "If I condemned 150 chicks as diseased, they'd pick out 147 and say they were fine." And his USDA bosses kowtowed to the plant's management, warning Bartley not to "bird-dog" the Simmons people. When Bartley refused to back off, the USDA transferred him in August 1985 to the night shift at another plant about six miles away. He went from "grader in charge" at Simmons to "other grader" at the Hudson Foods plant in Noel, Missouri. But in addition to publicizing Bartley's case, GAP forced the USDA to erase the negative comments from his employee file, and blocked the USDKS move to suspend him.
Tips for tattlers
Longtime students of bureaucracy can recognize in Bartley's plight the classic reaction of management to whistle blowers. Many such familiar details are rehearsed in GAP'S Survival Guide for Whistleous risks of whistle-blowing is family breakup. The entire family will suffer the resulting hardships." Additional tips include: try to remain anonymous, keep hard evidence to support allegations, check for potential supporters at work, and discreetly try to make changes within your workplace before complaining publicly. If publicity is the only recourse, GAP warns reformers, "choose a reporter carefully ... and don't assume a reporter is your friend."
"Knowing where to bring information is important," says Devine. Bringing it to "the wrong person might just tip off the wrongdoers." And, he warns, "a little publicity is a bad thing." If a local reporter writes an isolated story that you saw the boss stealing food from homeless children, your boss will remember who exposed the story. Two weeks later, though, the public will have forgotten your name. And two months later, no one will remember why you were fired. So if you blow the whistle, blow loud.
GAP client Bertrand Berube was fired in 1983 from his position as a General Services Administration regional director in Washington, D.C. after threatening to expose what he believed to be financial fraud, fire hazards, and other problems that made some of our GSA buildings unsafe for human occupancy." Berube appealed to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal institution created to investigate whistle blower disclosures. In a 1988 edition of The Federal Times, Berube described what followed as a nightmare. "OSC investigators grilled me under oath for five hours but dismissed my complaint after 45 minutes of telephone calls to GSA." In addition, Berube charges, "the special counsel said I had engaged in 'egregious insubordination.' " Shortly afterwards, Berube came to GAP. Five years of courtroom struggle later, the group had helped him get his job back.
Berube isn't the first whistleblower to complain about the OSC. A 1987 University of Maryland study reported that while more than 42 percent of the whistleblowers surveyed had used the OSC, they gave it an average rating of only 0.9 on a "helpfulness" scale of 0 to 5.
Congress began picking up on problems with the OSC in 1982, when Special Counsel Alex Kosinski was forced to resign after allegations that he had taught federal managers how to get away with firing whistleblowers. Complaints about the OSC finally resulted in the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, signed last spring by President Bush. Ralph Nader says that GAP'S efforts were critical for the passage of the bill. The new law prohibits retaliation against federal employees and specifically prohibits the OSC, in most cases, from disclosing a whistleblower's evidence or identity to employers. (GAP is now pushing a similar bill to protect whistleblowers in the private sector.)
Whistles and skulls
GAP lawyer Tom Carpenter calls the Whistleblower Protection Act the Berter Law, after the GAP case that alerted Congress to the government's typical antiwhistleblower tactics. John Berter was a security officer at the Veterans Administration hospital in Cincinnati who had the misfortune to work for a vicious, racist boss, Daniel Wilson. Berter heard many reports about Wilson's involvement in violent incidents at the hospital and personally saw Wilson severely beat a panhandler on one occasion and assault a 68-year-old mentally disturbed patient on another. When Berter tried to notify the FBI and the mayor of Cincinnati, Wilson threatened him, gave him lower performance ratings, and finally fired him.
Carpenter took the case to the House Civil Service subcommittee, which eventually held hearings about the need for a new law to protect people like Berter. Besides helping to prepare Berter for his committee appearance, Carpenter got the story into Jack Anderson's column and onto NBC News.
The strategy GAP used to get the whistleblowing law passed was right out of their playbook-clean lobbying. GAP tipped off reporters around the country to stories of retaliation against whistleblowers. And it encouraged unions like the American Federation of Government Employees to get their members to contact their congressmen. GAP stirred up op-ed pieces. Later, it coached witnesses testifying before congressional committees. The bill passed both houses without a single dissenting vote. On the day President Bush signed the legislation, he praised whistleblowers as "public servants of the highest order."
Yet until those words become permanently etched in the minds of management across the country, GAP will stay busy. GAP'S executive director since 1978, Louis Clark, estimates between 200 and 500 new people approach the group for help each year. "If there was a watershed event it had to be the Challenger explosion in 1986," Clark, the 42-year-old civil fights veteran and former Methodist minister explains. He says calls to GAP from would-be whistleblowers tripled in the months following that disaster.
But GAP can accept only about five new cases each year. Clark says many are weeded out because they are either "off the wall" or "blowing the whistle on something that happened to them," like being passed over for a promotion in favor of the boss's son or being denied that Christmas bonus. On the other hand, Clark estimates that more than half of the callers have legitimate complaints but still can't be taken on because of the paucity of resources.
Clark's organization of 15 paid employees reports making $1,756,901 in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Of that, $242,137 reportedly came from individual donations; $797,200 flowed from 43 different grants from informal groups and foundations like the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Fund for Constitutional Government, and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Fund in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (yes, the tobacco family).
Last fiscal year, GAP took in $634,476 in awards, after successfully settling a series of long-running lawsuits, which included $134,000 from settling Bertrand Berube's suit for wrongful dismissal from the GSA. Another $383,000 came from settling suits by eight whistleblowers alleging safety infractions at the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in Texas, and the rest flowed from numerous suits involving denied Freedom of Information Act requests.
The group asks clients to pay only for expenses involving such things as travel and long distance telephone calls. It does not generally charge them for legal fees. Instead, GAP signs contracts with clients binding them to require an offending party to pay GAP a set amount before agreeing to any settlement. So GAP'S money comes from the target of the suit. If a client loses, according to Clark, the group gets nothing.
So GAP goes for the biggest bang for its buck. The more national impact your allegations have, the better your chance of being taken aboard. If you find your boss at the State Department taking home some pens and memo pads, you're not likely to get as much attention from GAP as someone who discovers his boss is selling crack in the Pentagon parking lot.
The other key to being taken aboard is having a good chance of winning. GAP tries to avoid taking on losing cases, even when they have merit. "If the only thing a whistleblower is going to get from beating his head against a wall is a cracked skull," Tom Devine says flatly, "we advise him not to proceed."
A would-be whistleblower calling GAP gets connected with an "intake coordinator." If GAP considers your complaint "reasonable" and "significant" and believes its efforts can "make a difference," it launches an investigation. If that confirms the accuracy of your complaints, you're in.
Carpenter says GAP'S strength is that it's not a single-issue group. If it were, he argues, it would have lost all credibility with Congress long ago.
During the eighties, one of the most frequent targets of GAP'S publicity was the nuclear power industry. A 1985 article in The American Spectator condemned GAP as "the most successful antinuclear organization in the country," going on to say that rarely have so few wreaked so much damage upon so many."
Carpenter represents a 35-year-old Mormon named Ed Bricker who's been criticizing the Hanford nuclear weapons plant in Richland, Washington since 1983. When Bricker, a nuclear process operator, arrived at Hanford's Z" plant in 1983, it was making liquid plutonium into greenish buttons," shaped like hockey pucks, weighing about four and a half pounds. They are the triggers for nuclear warheads assembled at the Rocky Flats weapons facility in Colorado. Due to pressure from the Reagan administration in the early eighties, Hanford boosted plutonium production, which Bricker says resulted in careless production methods that could allow radioactive material to leak outside. Bricker once saw the plutonium-pumping system left on auto-pilot, with no one standing by in case of an emergency.
He complained constantly. Nothing was done, but his nagging didn't go unnoticed. Bricker says Rockwell International-which owned Hanford at the time-schemed to get him fired. By the summer of 1984, Bricker says co-workers told him they had been "asked to watch me and say what I do."
Then the harassment started. Bricker's wife began getting obscene phone calls. He found a tampon dyed with red ink in his lunch box. The brother of a plant manager hit Bricker in the face. And one day, while on a routine maintenance job in a radioactive area, Bricker's protective suit malfunctioned, cutting off his air supply. "I took it as a hint," he says, and he asked to be transferred to the "tank farms," where radioactive waste is stored.
But the tank farms had their own problems. In 1986 Bricker saw a worker mistakenly steamblast radioactive strontium and cesium into the air from a clogged waste pipe. After noticing other safety infractions, Bricker began complaining to the Department of Energy, which oversees all nuclear production. He also began leaking information to Michigan Democrat John Dingell's House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
That's when the harassment suddenly took a twist. Rockwell required Bricker to see a company psychologist on the grounds that his behavior was erratic. The gambit was easy to figure. Mental instability is grounds for canceling an employee's security clearance. Without that you can't work at Hanford.
Bricker received a clean bill of health, but the doctor determined that he was suffering from stress. Seeing an opening, Hanford promptly assigned Bricker to the job of driving an employee shuttle bus. "The clear message was that they would put me into this non-job until I quit." In addition to driving Car 44, Bricker was assigned to pick up cigarette butts in the yard used for breaks. He'd see smirks when he stood up after clearing an area. "Enjoying your job Bricker?" he often heard from sarcastic co-workers.
As it turned out, many of Bricker's concerns were confirmed independently by Hanford's chief auditor, Casey Ruud, whose evidence of safety infractions led Hanford to shut down its problematic Z" plant temporarily.
Nothing changed for Bricker until the summer of 1988, when he came to GAP. Tom Carpenter began collecting hard evidence supporting Bricker's charges and pushed for an independent investigation into Bricker's allegations of company harassment. By early 1989, Carpenter was presenting documentation to Dingell's subcommittee. The Michigan Democrat warned the Department of Energy (DOE) that he would be watching Bricker's case. Within weeks, Bricker was taken off taxi duty.
Oversight and Investigations subcommittee research analyst Jeff Hodges says, "If I got a call this afternoon from GAP on something, I'd definitely make time to see them ... they may not always be correct, but they act as best they can given the information they have." GAP is so successful on Capitol Hill partly because it understands the roles of key committees. Hodges says GAP does "a very good job of relating their individual projects to our needs."
Of course, when it came to Bricker's charges Carpenter didn't neglect the press. He got in touch with a New York Times reporter, Matt Wald, who had been covering the nuclear industry for years and had worked with GAP before. Wald began tracking down Bricker's allegations of safety infractions at Hanford as well as reprisals from management, which now included another trip to the company psychologist in July and another clean bill of health.
On August 6, 1988, a Wald story on Bricker set off a local news firestorm in Washington state that put DOE on the defensive. As Carpenter quips, "There's nothing like a national story to get local media to look at what's going on." During a previously planned tour of Hanford later that month, Energy Secretary James Watkins was battered by local reporters with questions about Bricker. Watkins promised to look into the matter. In early November, DOE announced that a Department of Labor investigator would conduct an independent search into what Bricker calls his "nightmare." The agency also promised to review "its procedures for dealing with complaints that employees have suffered reprisals for making good-faith disclosures."
Meet your meat
USDA inspector Steve Cockerham has worked at the Monfort Inc. slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska, since 1978, one of five slaughterhouses in the United States now experimenting with a Streamlined Inspection System for beef. Cockerham reports that before the SIS program, he would check about 265 sides of beef each hour. Now in that span, he sees about 340 swing past.
Cockerham says he's seen hydraulic fluid and oil from an elevated gear box dripping all over the beef and workers. "One time," Cockerham reveals, "I seen a guy with hydraulic fluid on his arms climbin' all over a pile of carcasses to fix the spreader." (That's the machine that separates the hind legs of a carcass so it can be gutted.)
That metal spreader was a problem in itself. To sterilize it, workers are supposed to insert the spreader into a nearby steam canister between jobs. But Miller says that workers often ignore that last step because of the high line speed-and instead just move right to the next carcass. He says that's a sure way to transmit disease.
According to Cockerham, carcasses often fell onto the slaughterhouse floor. The "hide puller" is meant to help skin the carcass, but it sometimes pulls so hard that the whole side of beef comes crashing down into puddles of "blood, fat, grease, and dirt."
Cockerham insists that he and at least one other inspector would stop the line when they saw infractions and also complained to their bosses at USDA. But he says he's been told "to make the system work." He says in frustration that "we're viewed as rabble-rousers, troublemakers."
Last May, a local reporter told Cockerham about GAP. Tom Devine took the case, and after convincing himself it was legitimate, set up a Washington news conference. Devine, a former Georgetown University debate-team captain, coached Cockerham on how to deliver his story to reporters.
Devine also helped prepare a vivid example of Cockerham's allegations. Monfort beef, contaminated with grease, hair, and rusty metal chips from illserviced machinery, was prepared on a beautiful silver platter, complete with a white cloth doily. Devine says, "We always urge whistleblowers to find good examples of nauseating products that have been approved by the government." The good visuals clearly impressed an NBC News producer who had shown up. Within hours, GAP got a call from the Today Show, inviting Cockerham to tell his story to Bryant Gumbel the next morning.
"We drilled Cockerham that afternoon," Devine remembers. "We coached him on avoiding jargon, and made him more concise." He also explained Cockerham's story to the NBC producer writing questions for Gumbel. Devine goes in for this intense TV preparation because "it worried me in The China Syndrome when Jack Lemmon couldn't get his point across to Jane Fonda before they killed him."
Despite all the coaching, Cockerham was so nervous in the New York studio that he stammered at Gumbel's opening question. But if Cockerham looked bad, Food Safety Inspection Service Administrator Crawford, on-line from New York, looked worse. And Cockerham eventually relaxed, doing a good job of making his point that the Streamlined Inspection System is a bad idea.
Negative public reaction in the weeks following the Today spot led USDA to postpone indefinitely its plans for implementing the SIS in more than 50 of the nation's largest slaughterhouses, while the National Academy of Sciences announced that it would conduct a study. Cockerham believes his high profile has protected him from retaliation at Monfort. "I think they think I'm too big to mess with now," he chortles.
A point that became very clear to Louis Clark soon after arriving at GAP in 1978 was that the "public is motivated by stories of people getting screwed. If we could show examples of how whistleblowers are often crushed by dishonest bosses, we thought it would affect the public's attitude."
In the same way that Ronald Reagan often used to (and George Bush still does) go over the heads of Congress and appeal straight to Americans in their livingrooms, GAP counts on public opinion as the quickest path to justice. It's reassuring to know that Lee Atwater isn't the only one using the Great American Publicity Machine.
As GAP'S Tom Devine often says, "In a free society, truth is the most
powerful political weapon." In a country where communication is instant, while litigation is endless, public opinion has become the most effective courtroom.
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|Title Annotation:||Government Accountability Project|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1990|
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