For whistleblowers, a bold move can be followed by one to department basement

 On her 71st workday in the basement, Paula Pedene had something fun to look forward to. She had an errand to run, up on the first floor.

“Today, I get to go get the papers. Exciting!” she said. “I get to go upstairs and, you know, see people.”

The task itself was no thrill: Retrieve the morning’s newspapers and bring them back to the library of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital. The pleasure was in the journey. Down a long, sunlit hallway. Back again, seeing friends in the bustle of the hospital’s main floor.

Then, Pedene got back in the elevator and hit “B.” The day’s big excitement was over. It was 7:40 a.m.

“I will not be able to do this forever,” Pedene said later that day.

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Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

“I was down there in that office for 16 months. Nothing. They gave me no meaningful work,” said Walter Tamosaitis, a former contract worker at an Energy Department installation in Washington state.

Four years ago, he raised concerns about the processing of radioactive waste. Then he was transferred to a windowless room in the building’s basement.

“It was so lonely,” he said. One day, there was a big snowstorm outside. In the basement, the phone rang. It was his wife, who’d seen a TV report that his workplace had been shut down. He went upstairs: lights out. Doors locked. Nobody told him.

“I thought the Rapture had occurred,” Tamosaitis said. “And I said, ‘Well, [expletive]. I’m the good guy, it can’t be the Rapture. I should be gone, and they should be here.’ ”

A four-year punishment

In Phoenix, Pedene believes she is stuck in the basement now because of something she did four years ago.

At the time, she was a 20-year employee at the hospital who oversaw everything from news releases to the hospital newsletter to the annual Veterans Day parade. In 2010, Pedene joined a group that complained to VA’s upper management about the Phoenix hospital’s director. They alleged that the director had allowed budget shortfalls and berated subordinates.

And it seemed to work. VA’s inspector general investigated and found an $11 million shortfall in the hospital’s budget. The director retired voluntarily. “I felt we had actually done the right thing,” Pedene said.

But that turned out to be the beginning of her troubles, not the end.

Pedene said the hospital’s new leaders were still suspicious of her, since she’d made trouble for the old leader. In December 2012, she said, those new bosses accused Pedene of violating VA rules.

The chief accusation was that Pedene had let her husband upload photos of a VA-sponsored Veterans Day parade onto her work computer. He was helping her finish a PowerPoint presentation she was working on. He was a non-VA employee, working on a VA computer.

Pedene and her allies admit that this happened. (She was also accused of excessive spending, which she denies.) But they say her punishment has been far greater than the offense.

“They took her out from there like she’d sold nuclear secrets to the Iranians,” said Sam Foote, a former doctor at the Phoenix VA hospital, who had been an ally of Pedene.

While the allegation was being investigated, Pedene lost her BlackBerry, her e-mail address, her office and her position as spokeswoman. She was shifted, instead, to the hospital’s library.

Back then, the library was on the third floor. The library had windows. But not for long.

“They knew that it was moving to the basement,” Pedene said. In April, it did.

Today, the library is one room stuffed with bookshelves and computers. Pedene is a kind of backup receptionist there, sitting in the second desk that visitors get to.

“I used to be the first reception person,” she said. “Now I’m the second reception person. So my days are even more boring.”

That’s because the library’s visitors don’t really need that much help. Many of them are here to do personal business on the free computers and phone.

On one recent morning, for instance, a man at one computer was loudly doing a telephone interview. (“Occasionally, I’ll have a beer. But that’s it,” the man said. “No addiction. No felony.”) Another visitor said his truck had been stolen.

He wanted to borrow the library’s phone.

“If it’s not back today — in the yard and parked — those boys will be looking for you,” he said in one phone call. He seemed to be leaving a message to the actual truck thief, threatening to call the police.

Pedene’s role in all this is to log visitors onto the computers, help them make copies, and occasionally lend a stapler or a pencil. In her idle time, the wheels still spin. One day last month, she was constantly thinking about how she would be handling the hospital’s P.R. — if that were still her job.

The Facebook postings have been pretty poor lately, she said one day last month. And they’ve done nothing with the health observation calendar! Nobody has a clue that this is World Hepatitis Day, or Cord Blood Awareness Month.

“I don’t feel like I’m using the full potential that God has given me,” Pedene said. She is staying on in the basement because she thinks someday, the VA will let her out. “My goal is to be an awesome PR person for VA again,” she says.

A non-answer from the VA

So how does VA explain what has happened to Pedene?

Here, things turn slightly Kafkaesque. At the Phoenix hospital, a spokeswoman said she couldn’t answer the question.

“Why she was moved to the library was Ms. Helman’s decision,” said spokeswoman Jean Schaefer. She meant Sharon Helman, the hospital’s director from 2012 until this year.

Could Helman explain it, then?

The spokeswoman said no to that, too.

The reason was that this spring, Sam Foote — the doctor who was Pedene’s old ally — revealed an enormous scandal that occurred on Helman’s watch. Phoenix VA staffers were using bogus wait lists to hide the fact that patients were waiting too long for care.

Helman was put on leave, Schaefer said. She couldn’t be reached (Helman didn’t respond to an e-mail from The Washington Post).

So the person who forced Pedene out of her office has been forced out of her office. Has anybody checked to see whether Pedene should get out of the basement now?

Schaefer said she couldn’t answer the question.

“Since these are personnel actions, we are unable to provide any comment,” she said in an e-mail.

A spokesman for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the committee is looking into Pedene’s case — and so is the Office of Special Counsel, which is in charge of protecting federal whistleblowers. The Office of Special Counsel declined to comment, citing privacy rules.

Across the country, there are no reliable statistics about how often federal employees and contractors are sent into this kind of internal exile. In a 2010 survey, 13.7 percent of federal workers said they had personally been punished by their bosses, by being moved to a different “geographical location.” But the question was too broad. Its wording could include a relocation to the basement, or to North Dakota.

‘A long, rich tradition’

But activists who help whistleblowers say they’ve seen it happen again and again.

“There’s a long, rich tradition of exiling whistleblowers to dusty, dark closets, or hallways, or public spaces,” said Tom Devine, of the watchdog group Government Accountability Project.

He said that, in many cases, the new, bad office is close enough to the old, good office that the person’s colleagues see what’s become of them. “The bureaucratic equivalent of putting a whistleblower in the stocks,” Devine said.

In the 1980s, for instance, Air Force chemist Joseph Whitson testified in a military court about mismanagement in his office. When he got back to work, he was given a new job in a basement: dusting file cabinets and sweeping the floor.

More recently, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has drawn attention to the case of Robert Kobus, an FBI employee who complained that agents were entering false information into the FBI’s time-and-attendance system. Grassley said that in 2005, Kobus was moved to a cubicle on an otherwise vacant floor of an FBI building in New York. Kobus’s own attorney declined comment on the case.

In theory, it is illegal to make the basement into a bureaucratic purgatory. In 1994, for instance, Congress prohibited agencies from making significant changes in a whistleblower’s “working conditions” as punishment for speaking out.

But in practice, the situation is murkier. Some courts have said moving an employee to a basement or closet usually amounts to punishment. But others have said this is a decision that should be made case by case. How nice is the basement office? How big is the closet?

“To get a lawyer to take your case, you need to have damages. And the damages for that kind of claim, standing alone — it just wouldn’t be a great case to bring in court,” said Sandra Sperino, a University of Cincinnati law professor who has studied this kind of scenario. “If you’re fired, you might be able to get damages for your lost income. There may be some damages for getting moved to the basement or a dingy closet, but they’re minimal.” She said a lawyer’s best bet would be to seek punitive damages, or compensation for emotional distress.

Back in the basement of the Phoenix hospital, Pedene’s day unspooled slowly. Somebody asked her how to repair his home printer. Someone needed help printing a résumé. Somebody needed her to look up Home Depot in the phone book.

“What can you do?” a woman in a doctor’s coat asked Pedene, inquiring quietly about her situation.

“Nothing,” Pedene told her. “Just hope it gets better.”

This was a rare good moment: a friend who’d ventured downstairs into the hospital basement. But eventually, the friend revealed why she was there.

“But anyway,” she said, “I’m looking for a copy machine.”

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