Published August 08, 2012
The Justice Department's inspector general has created a new position to help protect department whistleblowers and educate staff about them -- a move that comes in the wake of Operation Fast and Furious.
The "Whistleblower Ombudsman" is believed to be one of the first such positions in the federal government, and its announcement comes one day after a whistleblower in the "Furious" scandal reached an agreement with the U.S. government over claims of retaliation against him.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who was sworn in three months ago, said he has already "seen first-hand how whistleblowers have advanced (his office's) efforts to address wasteful and improper spending, improve the Department's operations, and protect the public's safety."
The Whistleblower Ombudsman will focus on training department employees about how colleagues who come forward improve "the effectiveness and efficiency" of the department, and educating department employees about legal protections for whistleblowers and the possible repercussions of retaliation against them, a press release said. The ombudsman will also be responsible for monitoring investigations of alleged retaliation.
A senior official in the inspector general's official has been tapped for the position.
A spokesman for the inspector general's office said the new ombudsman position is "not a direct result of Fast and Furious," noting that legislation aimed at protecting whistleblowers included mention of such a position. The spokesman said "a number" of recent cases led Horowitz to determine the position should be created now.
But the timing comes amid several Fast and Furious developments. On Tuesday, the U.S. Special Counsel's office, which mediates cases of whistleblower retaliation, announced that Peter Forcelli with the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives bureau had "successfully resolved his case" of alleged retaliation.
Forcelli was one of the first ATF agents to come forward and tell a House panel about Fast and Furious, the failed ATF operation launched in late 2009 with help from federal prosecutors there.
The goal was to take down an entire gun-smuggling organization. Over several months, the operation's targets bought nearly 2,000 weapons. But for reasons that are still in dispute, most of those firearms were never followed, and high-powered weapons tied to the suspects ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, including the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
In June 2011, Forcelli told the House panel investigating the matter that "grave mistakes" had been made. But when he voiced concern to supervisors, those "concerns were dismissed," he said.
After that testimony, prosecutors in Arizona "made false accusations in an effort to discredit me," Forcelli told Fox News.
"I was forced to relocate, and had to short sale my home for a loss of nearly $200,000," he said in an email. He said his wife had to quit her job, but "most hurtful" to him was that his daughter, "who also felt very uncomfortable, was forced to leave" the college that had awarded her a full scholarship worth $82,000.
In announcing the resolution of Forcelli's case, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner commended Forcelli "for his courage in coming forward."
Forcelli, who has since become a program manager at ATF headquarters in Washington, told Fox News, "Now I can get on with my career in public service, and my family and I can get on with our lives."
Another ATF whistleblower, former Phoenix agent Larry Alt, is still trying to resolve claims of retaliation. For raising concerns during Fast and Furious, he was transferred to "an administrative job" and subjected to a poor work evaluation, said Alt, who is now a senior special agent in Jacksonville, Fla.
"This process ... has taken a personal toll on all of us," Alt said.
Supervisors in ATF's Phoenix office at the time have told Congress that agents never raised concerns with them or other appropriate officials, and "the stark absence of contemporaneous documents voicing concerns" corroborates that.
Staffers for the lawmakers leading the congressional investigation into Fast and Furious -- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa -- were recently briefed on the new ombudsman position, a Justice Department official said.
Separately, the inspector general is expected to release its own, much-anticipated report on Fast and Furious in the coming weeks.