Federal investigators have concluded that Air Force officials at the military mortuary in Dover, Del., illegally punished four civilian workers for blowing the whistle on the mishandling of body parts of dead troops.

The Office of Special Counsel said in a report released Tuesday that they have recommended to the Air Force that it discipline the three officials who allegedly retaliated against the whistle-blowers. The three were not identified by name. It said one is an active-duty military member and the other two are civilians.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said in a statement that he has appointed a two-star general to review the findings and take "appropriate action." Donley said reprisals against whistle-blowers are unacceptable.

Donley said he and the Air Force's top officer, Gen. Norton Schwartz, "believe strongly there is no place for reprisal in the Air Force. Reprisals against employees are unethical and illegal and counter to Air Force core values."

In an earlier investigation report released last November, the Office of Special Counsel said it had found "gross mismanagement" at the Dover facility, where small body parts of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan were lost on two occasions. The Air Force said at the time that it took disciplinary action — but did not fire — three senior supervisors there for their role in the mismanagement. The reprisal accusations were a separate matter and were investigated by the Special Counsel under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

The three disciplined in connection with the earlier Special Counsel included Air Force Col. Robert Edmondson, who commanded the Dover mortuary at the time of the incidents, and two civilian supervisors — Trevor Dean and Quinton Keel.

Edmondson was given a letter of reprimand, denied a job commanding a unit at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and barred from future command assignments. Dean and Keel took a cut in pay and were moved to nonsupervisory jobs at Dover. All three have declined to comment publicly on the matter.

Although the names of the three accused of retaliating against the whistle-blowers were not made public, two officials said they are Edmondson, Dean and Keel. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of privacy restrictions.

The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request to seek comment from the three accused men.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last September inquiring about alleged problems at Dover, before the loss of body parts was made public, said Tuesday that Donley should fire those who retaliated against the whistle-blowers — "if he hasn't already."

Panetta expressed deep disappointment in the Dover revelations last November, and he ordered Donley to report back to him on whether stronger disciplinary actions were warranted. Donley said Tuesday that he is still working on that assessment.

Panetta also appointed a retired Army general, John Abizaid, to lead an independent assessment of actions taken to improve mortuary operations at Dover. Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Panetta has discussed the matter with Abizaid twice and expects him to report his group's findings by the end of February.

The four whistle-blowers had alleged that they suffered retaliation for their disclosures, including job termination, indefinite administrative leave and five-day suspensions.

James Parsons, one of the whistle-blowers, said Tuesday that he had not seen the investigators' report but was told Monday that its conclusions support his and the others' claims of retaliation.

Parsons is an embalming/autopsy technician. Two of the other whistle-blowers are Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary inspector, and William Zwicharowski, a senior mortuary inspector. Those three told The Associated Press last November, after the scandal broke, that the Air Force had retaliated against them. Parsons said he was fired in 2010 but reinstated almost immediately. Spera and Zwicharowski said they received letters of reprimand.

Zwicharowski also said he was put on administrative leave for eight months and at one point was labeled "mentally unstable."

Spera and Zwicharowski both said in interviews Tuesday that they had not seen the Special Counsel report.


Associated Press writer Randall Chase in Dover, Del., contributed to this report.

Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP