OSHA investigator says he was contacted by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel after exposing what he calls mismanagement inside the Whistleblower Protection Program that left whistleblowers out to dry
By Vicky Nguyen, Liz Wagner and Felipe Escamilla
Darrell Whitman says the United States Office of Special Counsel began looking into his claims of corruption inside OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program after he raised concerns about what he calls mismanagement and pressure to dismiss cases without fully investigating them. He spoke out about the program in an NBC Bay Area investigation last month. The Whistleblower Protection Program evaluates claims of retaliation against workers who raise red flags about major problems in industries that affect public safety. Vicky Nguyen reports in a story that aired on March 5, 2015. (Published Thursday, Mar 5, 2015)
Updated at 11:42 PM PDT on Thursday, Mar 5, 2015
A federal whistleblower investigator who blew the whistle on his own employer says he is now communicating with the government agency that examines allegations of fraud, waste and abuse.
Darrell Whitman works as an investigator for OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program, which evaluates claims of retaliation against workers who raise red flags about major problems in industries that affect public safety.
He spoke to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit in February regarding allegations of corruption inside OSHA Region 9, which is headquartered in San Francisco. Whitman said the United States Office of Special Counsel is now looking into his claims.
“When I found that this agency was abusing them, neglecting them and ignoring them,” Whitman said, “I had to standup and report [OSHA].”
Whitman described what he considers mismanagement of whistleblower complaints by Region 9 managers. He said his superiors have pressured investigators to dismiss cases without fully investigating them to alleviate a backlog of cases and meet quotas.
He said managers have altered his investigation reports, reversing the conclusion of his reports without his consent. Whitman said in one instance, his supervisor changed a case from a finding of “merit”—a victory for the whistleblower—to a determination of “non-merit.”
OSHA’s own numbers show that the agency issued merit findings in Region 9 just 16 times out of 562 investigations from 2009 to 2014. That amounts to 2.8 percent of cases. Nationally, the number of merit findings is equally dismal at 2.7 percent. Whitman believes the number of merit determinations should be closer to 30 percent.
After Whitman shared his story with the Investigative Unit, he said he was interviewed by the Office of Special Counsel. The agency cannot comment on the status of investigations but a spokesman said the normal course of action would be to refer credible findings to the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Labor, which would be required to investigate.
“When we don’t step up and do the right thing it’s not just the fellow worker," Whitman said, "it’s the public as a whole that then is at risk.”
Whitman’s story has energized members of the United Public Workers for Action (UPWA), an organization that stands behind public employees who speak out about government and corporate wrongdoing. Members of the organization, as well as other government whistleblowers, rallied outside OSHA’s Region 9 office last week in a show of support for Whitman.
“They have to clean this agency up,” said UPWA head Steve Zeltzer. “They have to start enforcing their law and have to start protecting whistleblowers and putting executives in jail for threatening the health and safety of workers and the public at large.”
Whitman said he put his own career on the line to speak on behalf of millions of workers on the frontlines of safety-sensitive sectors including the airline, nuclear and pipeline industries. Speaking up has come at a cost for Whitman.
“I’m on ice,” Whitman said. “I have been ordered not to talk about my work inside the agency. So here I am. I am talking about my work inside the agency.”
OSHA declined interview requests. An agency spokesperson said that OSHA is not aware of an investigation by the Office of Special Counsel. She said the agency has made progress on addressing a backlog of cases and that it increased the amount of damages from employers who have retaliated against workers.
“The men and women of OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program are committed, at every level of the organization, to protecting the rights of workers and to upholding the law,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “There is certainly more work to be done, but we are very proud of the significant improvements we’ve made to the program.”
If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit call 888-996-TIPS or email email@example.com. Email producer Liz Wagner or Vicky Nguyen. Follow Vicky on Facebook or Twitter: @vickydnguyen