New York Times, November 9, 1986: THE WHISTLE BLOWERS' MORNING AFTER
November 9, 1986
THE WHISTLE BLOWERS' MORNING AFTER
By N.R. KLEINFIELD
CHARLES and Jeanne Atchison live near the Cowboy City dance bar on a gravel street in a peeling white and gold mobile home. Weeds sway in the breeze out front. It's a street with a melancholy down-on-one's-luck feel about it. The town is Azle, Tex., a tiny speck on the periphery of Fort Worth.
A few years ago, the picture was a far prettier one. Charles (Chuck) Atchison was all set. He made good money - more than $1,000 a week - enough to pay for a cozy house, new cars, fanciful trips. But all that is gone. He's six months behind on rent for his land, and don't even ask about the legal bills.
''It's sort of like I was barreling along and I suddenly shifted into reverse,'' Mr. Atchison said with a rueful smile. ''Well, welcome to whistle blower country.''
Chuck Atchison is 44, with a stony face and a sparse mustache. Four years ago, he stood up before regulators and exposed numerous safety infractions at the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in Glen Rose, Tex. He was a quality control inspector for Brown & Root, the construction company building the plant for the Texas Utilities Electric Company, but he says he couldn't get anyone to fix the problems. His dissidence, as well as those of others, delayed the utility from obtaining a license and prompted still ongoing repair work.
Mr. Atchison wound up out of a job and spinning in debt. He's working again, in another industry, slowly trying to patch the leaks in his life. Though proud of his stance, he often feels psychic scars. ''The whistle blower today is probably the most discriminated against individual in the country,'' he said. ''By individuals and industry and the United States Government that is supposedly protecting him. He gets a brand put on him and it just seems like you can't get it off with anything.''
Payoffs, inflated bills, fudged safety reports, drugs that kill the laboratory mice - such are the shady doings that bestir whistle blowers. They are the people who when faced with questions of conscience posed in clear and dramatic form choose truth, knowing full well that their honesty may extract a harsh price.
Whistle blowers have been much in the news of late. Bill Bush, a retired NASA worker who had been demoted, he says, for complaining that the agency needlessly channeled out work, keeps a computer file on whistle blowers that has swollen to 8,500 entries. ''In the last 10 years,'' he says, ''my sense is there's been a dramatic increase in whistle blowing.''
Plenty has been written about the courage of the likes of A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the jaunty Air Force cost analyst who testified in 1969 about huge cost overruns on a Lockheed cargo plane. And, of course, everyone knows of Karen Silkwood, the late nuclear plant worker whose case charging flawed safety procedures at the Kerr-McGee plant became a heralded movie and resulted in Kerr-McGee paying her estate $1.38 million to settle charges that Miss Silkwood and her home were contaminated by company negligence.
Rarely, though, has anyone looked at what comes of whistle blowers long after the events that rocked their lives. Whistle blowers almost inevitably pay a heavy price. With few exceptions, they are driven out of not just their jobs, but their professions, too. But that doesn't mean they always are reduced to dire poverty and icy isolation. Often, they are reincarnated in some new position.
That's among the conclusions of Myron Peretz Glazer, a sociology professor at Smith College, and his wife, Penina Migdal Glazer, a professor of history at Hampshire College, who talked with some 55 whistle blowers for a book they are preparing.
''Of the people we interviewed,'' Mr. Glazer said recently, ''I would say that if you follow them over a period of time, most of them do recreate both their careers and their emotional lives. But mostly you find they had to move into other kinds of work that normally hasn't paid them as much as their former life. So while we can say blowing the whistle doesn't have to mean the end to your career, it will mean major adjustments.''
Despite the proliferation of whistle blowers and public applause for them, industry and government remain intolerant of them. When Allan McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, engineers at Morton Thiokol, testified about serious problems with the space shuttle Challenger, company management transferred the two men to menial jobs. In the face of a storm of adverse publicity, they hastily reinstated them. Mr. Boisjoly, however, took a sick leave last month due to an unspecified illness he said was linked to the Challenger episode and plans to quit the company.
After Mr. Fitzgerald, the country's best-known living whistle blower, was ousted by the Air Force, he spent 13 years in courts before he won full reinstatement in 1982. If he were able to do it over, he says now, he wouldn't have fought the grueling court battle.
''I would have recognized that my career was over and become a tap dancer or something,'' he says. His lawyer at the time, in fact, suggested he buy a gas station.
Mr. Fitzgerald has become a folk hero to other whistle blowers, and gets as many as 10 calls a week from employees privy to wrongdoing. He cautions them to think hard before picking up the whistle, for he likens whistle blowing to ''setting your hair on fire publicly.'' His sense is that while whistle blowing incidents appear to be rising in corporations, there is growing reticence in Washington, except for anonymous leaks,because of the ''deadly climate.'' As he puts it, ''You just can't get away with throwing your body in the face of the juggernaut.'' Some court actions, especially in California, have ruled in favor of unjustly dismissed corporate whistle blowers. Mr. Fitzgerald and others would like to see legislation that makes Government officials personally liable for illegal acts. There is interest among certain legislators in a ''bounty hunter'' measure that would pay anyone who is able to prove that a contractor is bilking the Government.
At bottom, though, the prognosis for whistle blowing seems ominous.
''They break the unwritten law of social relationships,'' Mr. Glazer said.
''They break a norm - the norm of loyalty.''
Mr. Bush, the whistle blower archivist, is equally dubious about a safer future. When individuals phone him with dark secrets he exhorts them to keep quiet unless they're independently wealthy. ''I want to emphasize this one thing,'' he says.
''Whistle blowing is dangerous. I've seen people bloodied. And it's not going to get easier to do. Nobody wants a snitch.''
CHUCK ATCHISON didn't want to believe that. So, when he lost his job, he doggedly shopped his resume around and, luckily, found comparable work as an inspector at a plant in New Orleans. After a week in Louisiana, he was subpoenaed to testify at further hearings on Comanche Peak. ''When I got back,'' he said, ''my boss called me in and fired me. He said I was a troublemaker.'' Diligence turned up a similar job at a powerplant in Clinton, Ill. ''Two days before I was to leave,'' he said, ''they called and said they wouldn't take me, because I was a troublemaker. I tried other plants and I found that I was blacklisted.''
Brown & Root, after all, always maintained that he was dismissed for dismal performance and has denied his allegations. Texas Utilities eventually admitted that some of his charges proved correct, but that many didn't.
Around this time, Mr. Atchison began getting anonymous, taunting phone calls, urging him to clam up.
His fear index soared. Several times, he was certain he was being tailed.
Several times, he had his phone swept for bugs. (There were none.) He kept a revolver at his bedside and he took karate lessons along with his wife and teen-age daughter. ''When I was driving,'' he said, ''I kept a close watch on my rear-view mirror. If someone was going to try to run me off the road, I was prepared to run them off first.''
His daughter, Jennifer, who was 13 then, took the events the hardest.
''Initially, she pretended it hadn't happened,'' said his wife, Jeanne.
''There was a lot of negative publicity from the plant. And we didn't have the money anymore. If there was a fluorescent green blouse that was the fad, we couldn't duplicate it.''
Mr. Atchison went through a cycle of scraping by. He drove a wrecker for a while. During one dispiriting period, he cruised up and down the highways picking up beer cans strewn along the shoulders and then sold them for scrap aluminum.
Two and a half years ago, he found work doing quality control once again at LTV in its aerospace division. The pay still isn't up to the good days, running about $10 an hour, but it's improving.
Many of his possessions are long gone. In 1983, he lost his house. He sold most of the family's furniture, as well as his four beloved underwater cameras. Several unresolved lawsuits against the powerplants that dismissed him have left him owing additional thousands of dollars.
'We're breaking even now,'' he said. ''We've still got a bunch of stuff we can't keep up. The land we're on for the trailer, we're about six or eight months behind. Fortunately, they're understanding about that.''
''We've learned to run on a tight budget,'' Mrs. Atchison added. ''I was lucky that I'm the same size as my Mom. I took clothes from her.'' Mr. Atchison doesn't feel popular. He lost a number of friends. ''The whistle blower has about the same image as the snitch does,'' he said. ''Everyone thinks you're slime.'' Nevertheless, Mr. Atchison has no misgivings. He did what he had to do, he said, and if he had it to do over he'd blow the whistle again.
He glanced at his right hand. ''I've got absolutely nothing in my hand to show as a physical effect of what I've done, except the losses I've had. But I know I was the cutting edge of the knife that prevented them from getting their license and sent them back to do repairs. I know I did right. And I know I'll always sleep right. I'll sleep just like a baby.'' ''N
O, you're not interrupting a thing,'' Kermit Vandivier said, this being late into a weekday evening. ''We're just sitting here working the puzzle.''
Previous nights, they had finished several versions of cats, and now they were intent on a farm scene. It was how they liked to pass their evenings, working jigsaw puzzles.
Life in Troy, Ohio, a sleepy town of some 20,000 near Dayton, has slipped into a certain predictable tranquillity for Kermit Vandivier and his wife, Esther. There were almost no reminders - just an occasional call from a college student doing a paper - of the stand he took 18 years ago.
Back then, he was a data analyst and technical writer at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Troy, a facility that made aircraft wheels and brakes. In the summer of 1967, he says he was confronted with certifying a defective brake for a plane the LTV Corporation was building for the Air Force.
Scared of losing his job - he was 42, without a college degree, supporting, just barely, a wife and seven children - he says he went along and helped write a false qualification report.
When a test pilot nearly crashed because of the bad brake, Mr. Vandivier resigned in October 1968 and took the matter to the F.B.I. and later to Congress. ''I couldn't live with it anymore,'' he said. ''I see a sign, 'Don't spit on the sidewalk' and I don't spit. I obey the law.''
Goodrich ultimately redesigned the brake, and the Defense Department revamped its inspection and testing procedures in the wake of the episode.
Goodrich, however, was never officially found culpable. A Goodrich spokesman said recently that old records show that the company ''demonstrated to customers that Mr. Vandivier's allegations didn't hold water. Unfortunately, we didn't take that public and the case has carried on and found its way into several books and business school papers.''
Mr. Vandivier, for his part, was much luckier than most whistle blowers. While at Goodrich, he had been writing a column on wide-ranging subjects for The Troy Daily News, which had been impressed by several letters he had written. He had discussed the Goodrich dilemma with the paper, and was assured that he could join full-time.
So he began a new career as a reporter. He was paid the same $135 a week he got at Goodrich. He started off covering the police beat and the town of Tipp. He had some enthralling times. The paper shipped him to Vietnam to write about the war, and he covered two Republican Presidential conventions.
A few years ago, he switched to a copy editor slot, which he still holds.
He also continues to write a column once a week and undertakes periodic features. Over a desultory dinner at the local Holiday Inn, Mr. Vandivier talked about his rebirth. He's a pleasant, fresh-faced man of 60, who wears a bushy mustache. He had on his knockaround clothes.
''The transition worked out great,'' he said. ''A man doesn't often get a chance at age 43 to change to a more exciting career without having to pay a penalty along the way. This thing gave me the push to take the plunge I probably never would have taken otherwise.''
Oddly enough, even though he blew the whistle in a small town, and on that town's third-largest employer, he has not found a chilly reception among his neighbors. Part of the reason, he suspects, is that there were no consequences to anyone's job. ''If I'd closed down the plant,'' he said, ''I'd probably have been run out of town.''
Mrs. Vandivier passed through a heavily stressful period during which she worried all the time, but the after-effects have been mild for her, as well. ''It might have mattered if I was one of these women who run about,'' she said. ''I went out of the house once a week to get my hair done, period.''
For the most part, now that the children are gone, the couple pass time with each other. ''We're ordinary, dull people,'' she says.
Mr. Vandivier these days thinks well of Goodrich. He has always felt that the brake incident was not symptomatic of Goodrich's corporate morality.
''This was such a stupid thing,'' he said. ''It was so unnecessary. It was like a comedy of errors. You're looking at people who were bullheaded.
They're not criminals. They were incredibly dumb.'' The next day, at his desk at The Troy Daily News, he said, ''There were some emotional penalties. For instance, my immediate supervisor, who's now dead, couldn't afford to financially walk away from the job, even though he was with me all the way. I feared that the implication was that why didn't he speak out, too. People wouldn't understand that he wasn't dishonest.''
What did he think of the climate for whistle blowers today?
''I think the atmosphere is great on things like space shuttle toilets and Navy screwdrivers,'' he said. ''Those are great for editorial writers, but I'm not sure if those things are worth blowing the whistle on. For the real whistle blower, it's getting worse.
People have become callous to scandal. It's like all the things that people eat that can cause cancer. I think Ralph Nader is less effective. I hate to say it, but whistle blowing has maybe become too popular.''
JAMES POPE braked in front of the mailbox and reached in for the fistful of letters. ''Let's see how much money I won today,'' he said. As it turned out, he owed. The mail was mostly bills. He wheeled his mustard-colored
Volkswagen into the driveway, framed with old Studebaker bumpers. Nodding at them, he explained that he has two hobbies. ''One is restoring Studebakers,'' he said. ''The other's fighting the Government.''
The Federal Aviation Administration had never seen anyone quite like Jim Pope. Almost from the moment he arrived there in 1966, he was speaking out, tweaking the bureaucracy. As he likes to explain it, ''I aggravated a whole lot of people.''
The big showdown, though, came in the late 1970's, when he was division chief of the Department of General Aviation. Mr. Pope contended that the F.A.A. had found an effective device in 1975, known as an airborne collision avoidance system, that would prevent mid-air crashes. However, he argued that the agency had chosen to instead waste money pursuing an inferior device that the F.A.A. had a hand in developing. When Mr. Pope found no allies within the agency, in late 1978 he complained to Congress. That is when, according to Mr. Pope, the F.A.A started trying to get rid of him.
First, they transferred him to Seattle, to become the ''chief special projects officer.'' When he got there, he was told that no such position existed. He was shown to an office and began a battle against boredom. His scant duties, he says, consisted of answering phones for the secretaries when they were on break. At times, he'd serve as a notetaker for a meeting. He set records for the amount of reading he completed.
On his desk stood ''in'' and ''out'' boxes that collected only cobwebs.
His appointment calendar expressed weeks of blankness. He had his own little joke - a number taped to the front of his desk that he changed each morning. ''It was the number of days I was kept captive in Seattle by the F.A.A.,'' he says.
Since he was unable to sell his house in McLean, Va., his wife stayed there alone and worked as a nurse. Her isolation spread by the day. Many friends and neighbors didn't understand Mr. Pope's crusade and began to look at her askance. ''Our good friends who we used to do a lot with turned on us,'' she says. ''Some of them have come back, but they'll never be the same with us.''
Mr. Pope was lonely, too, and feels he probably wouldn't have stuck with it without his wife's unstinting faith.
He calls her the ''perfect'' wife, except that she complains that every haircut he gets is too short.
Frustrated and irate, Mr. Pope finally took his story of non-work to The Seattle Times. When a front-page piece appeared, the F.A.A. quickly made him an airport inspector.
Mr. Pope's health, however, began to deteriorate. He had several kidney stone attacks. He took a sick leave and returned to McLean in August 1981. While there, he was notified that he was being terminated for insubordination. Furious, he sought a hearing before the Merit System Protection Board. Before the date arrived, the F.A.A. rescinded the firing and retired Mr. Pope due to disability at full pay. ''So they got rid of me,'' he said. Shortly afterward, he sued the
F.A.A., seeking $60 million, alleging that the agency engaged in a conspiracy against him. No trial date has yet been set. Meanwhile, aching to work again, Mr. Pope chased every engineering job that he heard about. Much to his surprise, he was hired in September of last year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. His boss, though aware of Mr. Pope's combustive past, didn't care. Mr. Pope is a mission readiness manager at the Goodard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. His job is to test the Cobe Cosmic Background Explorer, whose eventual mission will be no less than to discover the origin of the universe. ''How's that for an assignment?'' Mr. Pope said. ''It's almost as exciting as fighting the U.S. Government.''
NASA, of course, is itself embattled because of the space shuttle calamity. The facility where Mr. Pope works, though, had nothing to do with the shuttle and Mr. Pope said he has no idea if NASA was negligent.
Around the office, there is scattered joking that things were fine at NASA until Mr. Pope arrived and then everything went awry.
Mr. Pope is pleased with his new circumstances. He's 62 now, slightly pudgy, a crusty man with a droll sense of humor. When he's showing slides of some space equipment at work, he'll slip in a wiring diagram of one of his Studebakers for laughs.
Still, he sorely misses aviation. Indignantly, he said, ''One of the things I resent, is that for doing my job I had my life destroyed that way. My career was ruined and they took me out of the thing I loved the most.''
Around the F.A.A., Mr. Pope seems to be viewed as comic history. ''I think he's dead wrong,'' a spokesman says. ''I don't know what motivates the man. Who knows what motivates people.''
The F.A.A. says it is still years away from installing airborne collision avoidance systems in planes. Any chance he gets, therefore, Mr. Pope keeps on kicking and fussing.
''The way the Government wins is it outlasts people,'' he said. ''Well, I'm going to outlast the Government.
When they messed with Jim Pope, they messed with the wrong man.''