Multiple whistleblowers in the US Marshals Service have informed Republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s office that leadership is allegedly using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to retaliate against them for seeking to report systemic abuses of power.

In a letter to the Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates of the Justice Department, Grassley, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote, that “many whistleblowers” have now “come forward in the last month” to provide information suggesting the Assets Forfeiture Division of the US Marshals Service suffers from nepotism. For example, assistant director, Kimberly Beal, allegedly hired a family member as an intern and approved numerous cross-country trips for that family member, which are supposed to be for criminal investigators.

One whistleblower told Grassley this sort of thing is just a part of “day-to-day business” at the US Marshals Service.

“The allegations present a troubling and longstanding pattern of nepotism and quid pro quos in the selection of contractor and USMS staff positions,” according to Grassley. The information represents evidence that the Assets Forefeiture Fund is being abused to “reward favored insiders and friends.” However, whistleblowers in the US Marshals service fear reprisal for speaking out and claim that “senior leaders submit FOIA requests to seek information on employees, who may have made protected disclosures with the purpose of using that information to retaliate against them.”

There have been instances where government agencies have sought to obstruct FOIA requests made by whistleblowers to help them with their complaints against the government. In the case of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, information was improperly withheld to cover up government misconduct, according to Jesselyn Radack, the director of the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) National Security and Human Rights Division.

But Radack cannot recall a case where government officials have been accused of retaliating against whistleblowers with FOIA requests filed against them.

“I haven’t seen government officials filing FOIA requests about individual whistleblowers to get information to retaliate against them,” Radack stated. “Certainly, it’s a creative way to retaliate, and I wouldn’t put it past an official who is out to get a whistleblower.”

Radack noted that GAP has “extensive experience” with “agencies using almost any process that is supposed to promote transparency and accountability against whistleblowers.” For example, when a client file complaints with the inspector general, the inspector general may target that whistleblower for investigation or turn that person over to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. This is what happened in Drake’s case.

These allegations seem indicative of a culture against whistleblowers within the Justice Department, which also allegedly isolates whistleblowers who contact members of Congress or an inspector general by placing gag orders on them.

Sam Knight of the District Sentinel reported last week, that Yates believes the Justice Department may seek so-called protective orders to protect against the release of “privacy-protected or sensitive law enforcement information” when FBI employees are in Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management proceedings involving claims of whistleblower retaliation.

The Justice Department has proposed sanctions against employees, who violate these gag orders. The agency is reviewing regulations and Grassley believes there should be an exception for communications to Congress or an inspector general.

Overall, the Justice Department has a history of fostering an environment that is flippant, hostile and indifferent toward whistleblower protection. Through inaction, the department tacitly enables senior officials, who work to shut down whistleblowers. They make recommendations on how to do things better that only make slight adjustments to the status quo and routinely ignore whistleblower advocates, who have experience defending survivors of a system that conspired against them.

This ensures that corruption plagues government agencies, especially those like the US Marshals Service under the authority of the Justice Department.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."