Coming Soon: A Tale of Whistle-Blowing at the EPA Film to Portray Long Legal Battle With the Agency
By Darryl Fears, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006; A15LINK
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is ready for her close-up.
She sold the story of her battles with the Environmental Protection Agency to Hollywood, and actor Danny Glover is preparing a movie about how she blew the whistle against the agency and successfully sued for race and gender discrimination.
But Coleman-Adebayo is no star at the EPA, which has described her as a bad employee who refuses to work with others. She was allowed to work at home for five years because of a medical condition, but when she resisted coming back in April, the EPA took away her pay.
"They are really trying to break me, financially, emotionally and everything else," Coleman-Adebayo, 53, said in a recent interview.
The tense, stressful, dramatic and sometimes-ugly relationship between employer and employee is the stuff of movies. But the case involves larger issues about how the government treats employees who feel they are being retaliated against. Coleman-Adebayo and others say it amounts to corruption.
Her career at the EPA took a bad turn after she complained that the agency stood by in 1996 as a U.S. chemical company mined a deadly substance in South Africa. She won a $600,000 discrimination judgment against the agency in 2000.
"Adebayo's case is interesting because the issues of whistle-blowing and retaliation in federal government are larger than any one employee, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11," said Joslyn Barnes, a New York screenwriter who is working on the screenplay.
The EPA declined to discuss Coleman-Adebayo's complaints because a second lawsuit she filed against the agency is pending and because her case is a personnel matter.
"EPA will not comment on the specifics of the pending litigation except to deny that EPA has discriminated or retaliated against Dr. Coleman-Adebayo," EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said in a prepared statement last month.
The agency's opinions of Coleman-Adebayo are revealed in court documents and recent e-mails that she provided. In one e-mail, a supervisor, Rafael DeLeon, dismissed her complaints of "hostile workplace events" and a "pattern and practice of harassment." They are not medical facts, he wrote. They "merely represent your self-serving and baseless version of events."
Court records show that the EPA includes one white supervisor who referred to Coleman-Adebayo, who is African American, as "an honorary white person," and another supervisor who allegedly referred to her as "uppity," a segregation-era word for black people who do not accept the notion that they are inferior. The supervisors were never reprimanded.
The federal workplace is rife with complaints by whistle-blowers of retaliation, often involving threats of job loss. Such complaints usually play out in an arcane equal-opportunity process, rarely seeing the light of day.
Coleman-Adebayo's case stands out because her crusade against what she calls "government corruption" won her powerful allies, such as President Bush and House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who recently wrote a letter to the EPA on her behalf.
Sixteen years ago, Coleman-Adebayo was a promising hire, having graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in African studies. Her work was generally commended.
But when Coleman-Adebayo traveled to South Africa as part of a U.S. delegation focusing on the environment in 1996, her career took a turn for the worse.
She became a whistle-blower after discovering that a U.S. chemical company was mining a deadly substance in South Africa called vanadium pintoxide. Exposure often turns the tongue blue, causes nosebleeds, kidney and liver dysfunction, and sometimes cancer.
When the EPA did not react to her complaints, she took the issue to non-government interest groups. The EPA finally reacted -- against Coleman-Adebayo. Her evaluations worsened, and she said her requests for promotions were denied as white men with far less experience rose above her pay grade.
Coleman-Adebayo sued, and her court battle in 2000 played out like a war. EPA managers said they were upset over the South Africa incident.
"She disagreed with me and made criticisms of the way the agency, of which she was a part, was doing its job," William Nitze, an EPA supervisor who worked in South Africa, testified in 2000. "You have to understand that when we try and organize and manage a program at EPA, we tried to do it as a team."
The agency said the men who rose to positions above Coleman-Adebayo's did so because they were better fundraisers and got along better with others.
Coleman-Adebayo's lawyers said race was also a factor. Witnesses said a white assistant administrator, Alan Bruce Sielen, motioned Coleman-Adebayo into a meeting of mostly white people and said it was all right because she was "an honorary white person."
Sielen denied the claim, but one of the witnesses, a black man, said he confronted Sielen after he also called him an honorary white person. Later in testimony, Coleman-Adebayo said Sielen told her she was denied a promotion because another supervisor said she was too "uppity."
The supervisor, Alan Hecht, a deputy administrator, denied the claim. The EPA fought back, enlisting psychiatrist Christiane Tellefsen to assess Coleman-Adebayo's mental state. Tellefsen said in testimony that Coleman-Adebayo was a self-centered, narcissistic woman who "tended to speak in a dramatic way."
In explaining how Coleman-Adebayo was "passive-aggressive," Tellefsen said she was uncooperative, even when asked to provide her children's names. But in cross-examination, lawyers showed that Coleman-Adebayo did provide the children's names, but the doctor believed the African names were made up. Coleman-Adebayo's husband is Nigerian.
The testimony of Jon T. Grand, who had been an EPA manager, offered evidence that Coleman-Adebayo's discrimination claim had merit. Grand, who is white, recalled that a white manager privately told him that they called her "Rosa Parks of the EPA" behind her back.
Years later, Grand's career at the EPA would free-fall. The agency had him prosecuted, and he was sent to jail because he did not report the EPA's mistake of overpaying him when he worked for the agency in Denmark. Grand said that he did report the error, but a secretary failed to act. Facing a long prison sentence, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in jail.
"I do actually believe that had I not testified, this would never have happened," Grand said.
Another Fight, Another Suit
Coleman-Adebayo won her case but was later found to have uncontrollable hypertension. The EPA asked her to resign, but she refused, saying the men who discriminated against her were allowed to stay.
The agency agreed to temporarily allow Coleman-Adebayo to work from home. But her telecommute lasted for four years as her illness worsened. During that time, she helped form the No Fear Coalition to protect whistle-blowers and worked with Congress to make the No Fear (Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation) Act into law in 2002.
Good Housekeeping magazine presented her in 2003 with its Women in Government award for courage. Later that year, Coleman-Adebayo filed a second lawsuit, alleging retaliation by the EPA.
A year later, she was reassigned from a specialist job to a lower analyst position, effective Dec. 1, 2004. Eight days later, the agency placed her in yet another post.
The EPA sent a letter saying the new job would be "done in an office setting." Coleman-Adebayo read it at the cluttered desk in her kitchen, surrounded by numerous bottles of medication prescribed for hypertension and glaucoma.
For a year, Coleman-Adebayo and the EPA traded letters like punches. She continued to telecommute until the agency ordered her into the office this April. After complaining of dizziness, she left in an ambulance. The EPA placed her on family leave, without pay.
Coleman-Adebayo's response seemed worthy of a line in the screenplay.
"They want me to make a choice between my life and my job," she said.
© 2006 The Washington Post CompanyDr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo,
Senior Advisor to the Director of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics,
US EPACongressional Testimony LINK
My name is Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. I am a Senior Policy Analyst at EPA and co-founder of the "EPA Victims of Racial Discrimination group."
Mr. Chairman, I commend your courage in convening this hearing. I am thankful to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well, who wrote letters to Ms. Browner expressing their concern about civil rights abuses at the Agency. Most importantly, I thank God for this day.
Why have we come to Congress to plead our case?
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had that question put to him as he sat in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell. He replied that he was in Birmingham because injustice was in Birmingham. Mr. Chairman, we are here today because there is injustice at the EPA.
I joined the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of International Activities (OIA) in 1990, because I believed that serious attention to the environment means addressing the international dimension of the problem. And I believed that my background and experience would be a major asset. Instead, I have endured a decade of racial, sexual and retaliatory abuse at the Agency.
I am a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University, I hold a doctorate from MIT specializing in International and African development.
Before coming to EPA, I lectured in the fields of African Studies as an Assistant Professor at the American University. Later, I joined the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation as their Senior Social Scientist providing research to Members of Congress on the newly emerging nations in Southern Africa. Afterwards, I was recruited by the United Nations to work as a Project Director in Ethiopia and Tanzania during the 1986 drought crisis. Later, I worked with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the areas of African conservation and natural resources management.
I represented EPA at the 1995 UN Women's Conference in Beijing, and later served as Executive Secretary of the US-South Africa Bi-National Commission Environment Working Group. I received letters of commendation from First Lady Hilary Clinton, Administrator Carol Browner, and others.
The story inside the agency was another matter due to the debilitating and insidious consequences of racial discrimination that affect negatively the individual, the nation, and the international communities the American public expects us to serve. Promising careers have been destroyed and other colleagues, suffer stress-related illnesses and perhaps even early death, like Lilian Peasant. Many African-Americans have seen their lives compromised and aspirations crushed.
Despite my skills and achievements, OIA consistently made it clear that, in their view, I was an intruder in their world. I could participate in a high-level staff meeting, I was told, only because my colleagues regarded me "as an honorary white man". Senior management felt "uncomfortable" around me, I was repeatedly told that managers considered me "uppity," and much too aggressive for a woman. I watched as a white male with notably less qualifications and experience, and who joined the EPA at the same time I did, became my supervisor within years.
Because Ms. Browner fails to act, US foreign policy suffers, as well. For example, on a trip to South Africa during a Gore/Mbeki commission meeting ( a meeting chaired by Vice President Al Gore and South African President Thabo Mbeki), the Assistant EPA Administrator for International Activities referred to Peter Mokaba, then Deputy Minister of the Environment in South Africa and a hero in the struggle for freedom in that country as a "necklacer" that is a murdered while talking about him with Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. Mr. Mokaba has never been accused, much less convicted of any such crime! But, the EPA officials libelous act and prejudices are allowed to taint the fabric of US international environmental policy.
In another example of gross insensitivity, South Africa requested EPA’s assistance on behalf of a community which had been poisoned by Vanadium. We had agreed to help. When I attempted to meet our obligations, I was officially reprimanded, refused travel requests, and removed from the position. I was replaced by a white male with no background in Africa. As with other African-Americans, I was hindered by managers from providing my expertise to address international environmental issues.
The jeopardy that results to important environmental goals when they are entrusted to persons who are insensitive, arrogant and even corrupt is incalculable. The costs of leadership based on past privilege, or personal favor is particularly high in institutions, like the EPA, that are charged with the tasks of securing a sustainable and viable future for us all. The continued practice of race and sexual discrimination at the EPA is a cost that we, as a society, can not afford.
Despite working with Ms. Browner on the Beijing Conference and other projects, requests, as early as 1997, to meet with her to try and resolve the hideous discrimination that I was encountering fell on deaf ears. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Ms. Browner pleading for her resolve the race and sex problems within the Agency. These pleas fell on deaf ear, as well.
From various discussions, I learned that racial prejudice was pervasive in the Agency. We decided to establish the "EPA Victims of Racial Discrimination. group". Richard Moore, a leader of the Environmental Justice Movement has said "how can the community trust an Agency which violates the civil rights of its own employees."
After I brought a suit in Federal Court against the EPA for violation of my civil rights, the retaliation escalated, six weeks before the trial, I was removed from my assignment focussing on the reduction of mercury in hospitals waste streams with the American Hospital Association (AHA). I had received the Vice Presidential Hammer Award and the Agency’s Bronze Medal Award for my leadership on this project.
Finally, on August 18th of this year, a jury of the US District Court in Washington found that the EPA and its Administrator, violated Title 7 of the US Civil Rights Act. The jury found the Agency guilty of racism, sexism, color discrimination and creating a hostile work environment.
But, what has happened to the managers who violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act? From all indications, absolutely nothing. The Assistant Administrator and his Deputies are still members of the Senior Executive Service and two other officials are still senior managers.
The failure of the Administrator to discipline "direct reports "who have been found guilty of discrimination sends a clear message to all supervisors in the Agency that race and sex discrimination is protected activity. There are no other crimes, except civil and human rights abuses, that are treated in such a cavalier manner. If a federal employee is found guilty of ethics violations, the penalties can range from imprisonment to fines. But the government and the Agency has obviously decided to calculate the cost of defending racist and sexist managers into the equation of doing business.
Major structural reform is required at the EPA and the American public must voice its outrage over the insane use of its dollars to cover-up mismanagement and discrimination.
Normal practice at the EPA has been to place employees under investigation on unclassified duties and to transfer them to another unit until the investigation is completed. In some cases, the employee is placed on administrative leave. In this instance, the management personnel involved in my case have already been found guilty to have discriminated. Certainly, their continued active presence at the helm of the Office of International Activities is a slap in the faces of all EPA employees and to the jury and our courts.
In a recent memo, Ms. Browner urges the Agency to "reflect on our behavior". We need an Administrator who will aggressively enforce the laws preventing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. We do not currently have such an Administrator. Until that is done, the entire judicial and bureaucratic system does not work for individuals who have had their lives torn apart because of racial or sexual discrimination.
Until the OIA management, have been sanctioned, courageous individuals that step forward, like Mr. Jon Grand, Director of International Relations for Region 5, will find their careers sabotaged and they will be the target harassment and retaliation by OIA Headquarters managers.
Mr. Chairman, a jury has found that these managers have broken the law. And, they must be fired or suspended awaiting any judicial appeal.
Until my jury verdict, negative exposure for the agency in the Washington Post articles, C-span coverage and the announcement of this hearing, the administration only paid lip-service to the concerns of civil rights abuses in the Agency.
Ms. Browner’s message in the Washington Times and to EPA employees also relies on a barrage of statistics to try to offset the jury ’s verdict and other charges of discrimination. In both instances, numbers are used to erase the human face of the problem. And once the issue is dehumanized, discrimination and bias can flourish. By claiming that discrimination (based on the numbers) is not a problem, Browner gives permission for it to continue.
Why have we come to Congress?
Because the Agency and Executive Branch has thus far refused to police itself and address those injustices. Therefore, Congress must take action to require that prohibited personnel practices are not tolerated and that disciplinary action, including firing, is taken against all managers who violate the civil rights of employees. Secondly, we ask Congress to conduct a review of the Office General Counsel and Office of Civil Rights - we need a community oversight board. Third, Congress should order a review of all terminations or firing, specially those affecting minorities, with the goal of re-instating employees who were fired by discriminating managers. Finally, discriminator’s must be held financially liable for their misdeeds - not US taxpayers.
Mr. Chairman, I believe, my story is but one example of hundreds which represent the new face of discrimination in the 21st century.
How else might one explain the fact that African-Americans make up only 18% of EPA's workforce, but represent 57% of those fired by the Agency.
Those numbers suggest a well thought out and executed policy of discrimination.Bio:
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Ph.D. is currently on detail as a Senior Advisor to the Director of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, US EPA. Formerly, she worked at the United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office (UNSO), the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund.
Dr. Coleman-Adebayo was the Chair of the Sustainable Development and Environment Expert Group for the National Summit on Africa. She was the Executive Secretary for the US/South Africa BiNationalCommission (Gore-Mbeki Commission) Environment Working Group. She is currently writing a book on the AIDS crisis in Africa. Recently, she received an award for Outstanding Commitment to Global Health and Development from Harvard University. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo received her BA degree from Barnard College and her doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is the mother of two children.AAEA Assists in Passage of 1st Civil Rights Legislation of the 21st Century: No Fear Act of 2002LINK
AAEA was recruited by Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo in 2001 to provide an environmental justice perspective to the campaign to end racial discrimination in the federal government. Dr. Adebayo sued the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency for racial discrimination and won the biggest verdict ever awarded against the agency--$600,000. She then pursued a legislative solution.
After passing unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives due to the leadership of then House Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)(now Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee), the No Fear Bill stalled in the U.S. Senate due to reticence from Senator Joseph Lieberman as Chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee. The Senate bill was sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-VA). Dr. Adebayo recruited AAEA President Norris McDonald to accompany her to New York to meet with Reverend Alfred Charles Sharpton, Jr., President of the National Action Network at the Hall of Justice in Harlem to request his assistance in convincing Senator Lieberman to move the legislation. Rev. Sharpton agreed to participate in a Freedom Rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., a Freedom Ride to the U.S. Senate and a meeting with Senator Lieberman to request action on the legislation. The rally, march and meeting were evidently successful because the legislation was passed out of Senator Lieberman's committee very quickly. It passed in the full Senate soon thereafter. Discrimination suit puts Leavitt in a hot spot PRESIDENT BUSH SIGNS "NO FEAR" BILL INTO LAWLINK
On May 15, 2002, President Bush signed the NO FEAR bill into law. This finished up a consecutive, shut-out, winning streak by EPA's own Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. The bill originally passed the House of Representatives by a 420-0 margin, 99-0 in the Senate, and then back in the House for a 412-0 finish. NO FEAR stands for Notification and Federal Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act. The bill requires notification of federal employees of their rights, paying EEO and Whistle-Blower awards out of agency budgets, rather than a general slush fund in the Department of Justice, and annual reporting by agencies of these cases.
The legislation "could not have been passed without the pain and the sheer agony of so many employees who came forward to mention that their lives were made almost in the form of a nightmare because they chose to stand up." said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) a cosponsor of the House version of the bill.
"By holding accountable those who insist upon discriminating against others, the federal government will become a role model for civil rights - and not civil violations." said House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, (R-WI) the original drafter and sponsor of the bill.
"It means now the federal government will have to obey its own laws, ......not hide behind a slush fund in the Treasury to pay for their indiscretions," said our own Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.
Time Magazine Reporter Jack White termed the NO FEAR bill "The first civil rights bill of the 21st century," and the description has stuck.
This struggle had its humble beginnings with the formation of EPA Victims Against Racial Discrimination (EPA VARD) a few years ago, by Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo and Mr. Selwyn Cox. The brand new and outside the box organization broke all the rules as it quested for justice for the victims of discrimination and retaliation by EPA. The long road to NO FEAR included, the winning of a $600,000 judgement by Dr. Coleman-Adebayo, two rallies including a "Freedom Ride" in Freedom Park, a meeting between NAACP officials and Administrator Browner, two hearings before the House Committee on Science, the first of which left EPA Adminstrator Browner in tears, and a coalition which grew from EPA VARD to the NO FEAR Coalition which included numerous agencies and civil rights and whistle-blower organizations. The NO FEAR bill was written in response to Coleman-Adebayo v Browner after the House Science Committee hearings.
However, many critics wonder how effective the law will be. Even as the legislation passed through Congress, discrimination and retaliation at the EPA increased. Indeed, two members of the Coalition in other agencies have been notified of intention to fire. (One EEO, one Whistle-Blower) Many of the managers accused of discrimination in both Marsha's former organization (OIA) and current organization (OPPTS) have been praised and promoted by EPA Administrator Whitman. We've undergone a serious of white-washes by supposedly independent investigators (somehow employee complaints apppearing in the initial draft disappeared) and the EPA OIG (many critical witnesses were never even questioned by the OIG). Administrator Whitman has supposedly implemented a policy of Zero Tolerance for Discrimination, yet we are not aware of a single successful action under this policy. Indeed, all three complaints tendered by NTEU 280 were returned without investigation. The Labor Relations office has been waging a relentless war on the Unions and their members, dismissing grievances with disingenuous responses and allowing guilty managers to investigate themselves. The Alternative Dispute Resolution process has been throttled by the Office of General Counsel and the Office of Civil Rights seems to be conducting business as usual. Neither Administrator Whitman, nor OARM Assistant Administrator Morris Winn have met with AFGE 3331, the Union that represents the vast majority of minority employees here at EPA Headquarters. EPA VARD has been routinely snubbed by Administrator Whitman, in its several requests for meetings. The struggle had a high toll in terms of employees originally in the struggle, who have had their careers, lives, and health ruined; a toll which this Administration turns a blind eye and deaf ear to. EPA Administrator Whitman succeeded in destroying the Ombudsman function and driving out its Native American Director Robert Martin.
On the positive side the NO FEAR movement has galvanized employees, giving them hope that they can actually prevail in the face of overwhelming injustice. And in the last election of AFGE 3331 officers, EPA VARD supported candidates are now all on official time. And for the first time in our history, NTEU 280 and AFGE 3331 have an effective working partnership, exchanging information, resources, and strategies for fighting against common injustices.
We now have a law, but the law will be useless unless employees take it upon themselves to educate themselves and become involved in the enforcement. For instance, if an employee identifies a supervisor who has been promoted instead of disciplined for violating the civil rights or whistle-blower protection laws, it is important that the employee reporst these violations to Congress if the Agency fails to identify these managers.