Will NGO politics get in the way of zealously representing a whistleblower in court?
In 2003, Federal Air Marshal Robert MacLean blew the whistle on a TSA plan to cut back air marshals for long distance flights – the very flights taken by the 9/11 terrorists. TSA notified MacLean and the other marshals via unsecured text message. The reason for the cutback was so TSA could save money on hotels for its marshals, at the same time it was handing out bonuses to TSA senior management.
MacLean went to his supervisor and to the Inspector General but neither did anything. Eventually, he went to an MSNBC reporter. As a result, Congress became outraged and the TSA plan was scrapped.
MacLean’s disclosure eventually got him fired, but not before TSA retroactively marked the unsecured text message “Sensitive Security Information,” which could then justify his firing.
After going through rounds of litigation, at both the federal judiciary and an administrative kangaroo court that is the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), MacLean’s case is now at the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
Importantly, in 2011, the Obama-appointed MSPB court upheld a Bush-appointed MSPB decision from 2009 finding against MacLean and justifying his termination. To do this, both courts had to ignore clear legislative text and congressional intent.
(As an aside, the Obama-appointed MSPB Chair, Susan Tsui Grundmann, allegedly apologized to MacLean’s attorney at an informal social gathering for coming up with the decision against his client, saying that the Board worked for months to come up with a way around the 2009 decision, to no avail. However, a cursory look at the 2011 decision reveals that it was probably written over the course of a weekend, inexcusably ratifying politically-motivated, whistleblower-hostile arguments that have no bearing to the law. If there were ever an argument that the MSPB is independent from the administration in name only, MacLean’s case is it.)
In any event, MacLean is fighting this decision on appeal. One of the points made by MSPB in the 2011 decision is that MacLean’s disclosures would have been protected if he went to the Office of Special Counsel. However, he did not know of OSC at the time he blew the whistle, nor was DHS educating its employees about OSC, and it’s doubtful whether OSC was even willing or able to receive any sensitive, secure disclosures.
Therefore, MacLean was in no position to go to OSC. If so, why should he be punished for acting out of conscience and possibly preventing another 9/11, when TSA and OSC provided him with no means of disclosing information, and years later a partisan court rubberstamps retaliation by imposing on him a requirement he couldn’t meet at the time? Aren’t we second-guessing the brave men and women who are on the front-lines of homeland defense, to our collective detriment?
This is the essence of a proposed amicus brief to bring to the attention of the Federal Circuit judges the Catch 22 described above. To do this, I made a FOIA request to OSC to see if it was in a position to accept disclosures prohibited by law – the kind of disclosure MacLean is alleged to have made. Time is of the essence though, as the brief has to be submitted by March 23.
Unfortunately, OSC is refusing to grant a request for expedited processing. There is one possibility, though, as under the law an expedited request may be made by “a person primarily engaged in disseminating information, an urgency exists to inform the public about an actual or alleged federal government activity.” (This blog likely does not qualify, as OSC defines “a person primarily engaged in disseminating information” as “a person whose main professional activity or occupation is information dissemination, though it need not be his or her sole occupation.” As a part-time hobby, MSPB Watch likely does not qualify.)
The question remains whether they will work to ensure that OSC provides the relevant information needed to file the amicus brief.
It bears mentioning that, in 2008 and 2009, GAP relied on its work on behalf of MacLean to justify its tax-exempt status. On the other hand, GAP’s Legal Director recently stated that “Everybody knows that Title 5 [executive branch] employees can make classified disclosures to OSC.” As I stated in that post, this is contradicted by MacLean’s actions (as well as that of another GAP client, Thomas Drake).
Given the Federal Circuit’s track record on appeals from MSPB, one would hope that GAP would suborn its political agenda and do everything it reasonably can for its client, as part of its obligations to zealously represent him.