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BLM makes life rough for Whistleblower
Long-time employee demoted, harassed after reporting violations
by Steven T. Taylor/© 1999 Cascadia Times
Mike Austin still doesn't want to believe the agency with which he has worked for more than 30 years would treat him the way it has. He doesn't want to believe that for telling the truth and reporting a conflict of interest he would be cast aside, shoved into a desk job in a city far from his home with duties far below his expertise. But as time wears on since he first blew the whistle on apparent malfeasance -- in early 1997 -- he's losing faith in the Bureau Land Management.
Austin's story reflects the BLM's documented pattern of retaliating against employees who report wrong-doing within the agency.
Austin is a realty specialist and had been working for more than six years out of the BLM's Twin Falls, Idaho office, where, among other things, he investigated trespassing violations, such as illegal farming, ranching, dumping and other transgressions. His ears were always to the ground to hear about such violations.
One day he overheard his supervisor, Ray Hoem, an resource area manager, making a deal with an owner of a cooperative farm called JBD Farms, Austin says. The deal involved Hoem buying a grain silo from the farmers. The problem was, the farmers had violated trespassing laws -- they illegally plowed public land --nearly 20 years before in the late 1970s. They were still paying off a $28,000 fine for their actions.
Austin says he often wondered about Hoem's ethics, and the negotiations he heard seem to violate the agency's code of conduct, which bans making private business deals with anyone with whom the BLM has had legal disputes.
"The reason we were together out at the farmer's place was to talk to [the farmer] about renegotiating a promissory note regarding the trespassing," Austin says. "The nature of the whole thing meant we shouldn't be dealing with [violators] on a personal basis. Hoem shouldn't be making decisions on these farmers while making financial deals. It smacked of conflict of interest."
Austin asked his boss, "Are you sure you ought to be doing this?" Hoem, who had successfully struck a deal with the farmer, told his employee not to worry about it, Austin recalls, so he obeyed orders and let the issue drop.
Trespassers Payments Reduced Under Cloud of Suspicion
A week after this encounter, Hoem reportedly issued a decision to reduce the amount of payments of JBD's fine, stretching them out twice as long in time as they were. By doing so, it added increased costs to government while easing JBD Farms' financial burden. "The farm people sure seemed to benefit from their association with Ray," says a source close to the situation.
Although the extra costs don't add up to a substantial amount, Austin knew that every little bit counts for an agency that is always concerned about having enough resources to do the job. More importantly, he was bothered on principle.
He felt it was his duty as a public servant to tell someone higher up in the BLM chain of command what he knew. In March, he told Boise District Manager Jerry Kidd, who asked Austin to file a report, which he did. The report was filed but nothing came of it and Hoem did end up buying the silo.
Hoem, who retired from the agency earlier this year, insists he did nothing wrong. "People can look at it anyway they want to look but I'm a farmer whose got 120 acres of farm and I needed a grain silo," he says. "This guy [from JBD Farms] had four of them that they weren't using and I bought one at fair market value as a farmer. I don't think there's anything wrong if you buy it at fair market price."
Furthermore, Hoem maintains, he wasn't responsible for reducing JBD's payments. He says someone above him made that decision.
As a few months passed, Austin began getting frustrated with Hoem's treatment of Austin's cases. "Time went by and I let it ride," he says. "I'd find some trespassers and report them. But the next thing I know, I'm pulled off the case and told not to deal with these people."
Then in June 1997, Austin received a letter reassigning him off of Hoem's area and into the Boise office -- a place Austin did not want to be. Austin says his transfer was retaliation for reporting Hoem's deal: "What they basically said was, 'This guy's a troublemaker.' It was a form of reprisal."
Hoem calls Austin "bitter," and denies that his former employee is the victim of a retaliatory reassignment. "Mr. Austin got transferred," Hoem says. "Mr. Austin didn't appreciate getting transferred so he's doing anything he can to try and get that transfer null and voided. In the government, like any other business, sometimes people have to move."
District manager Kidd says Austin "did the right thing," as quoted in an article by journalist Nils Nokkentved of the Twin Falls Times-News, who first broke Austin's story. "But that's not related to the fact that we need him here [in Boise]," Kidd is quoted as saying.
Austin challenged the reassignment, failed to get it overturned and then filed a formal whistleblower's complaint. Once he did that, and before he moved to the Boise office, he was harassed and "treated like a dirty dog," he says.
The alleged on-the-job harassment culminated when Austin found two of his tires slashed. "They were trying to get me out of Twin Falls as fast as they could," he says. He reported the incident to the police and to the BLM but the agency investigator only spent "about 5 minutes and that was about it," Austin says.
No one was charged with vandalism and if the agency knew who slashed the tires, it took no action. The inaction is not surprising to some observers of the agency, who say employees are rewarded for looking the other way at malfeasance and punished for reporting it. "BLM staffers are a close bunch when it concerns one of their own," a source says.
Hoem says the tire slashing is a mystery to him. "We don't know what happened that day," he says.
Austin is now in Boise, where he is not given any substantial work despite the agency's initial stated desire for his expertise in the Boise office. "I knew that was bogus from the start," he says. "They started giving me new cases -- instead of existing cases which really needed [attention]. The things I'm getting are things I did when I first came on board doing realty work. Stuff that anyone can do. Simple compliance work."
Agency Keeps Mouth and File Shut
The BLM investigated Hoem's conduct but will not release the results of that report, and the Idaho state office refused to answer questions about the case.
Hoem does have a bit of a reputation among area residents. "Ray is a good old boy and his job at BLM was to serve the ranchers," says one resident, who asked not to be named. "He hasn't gone out of his way to enforce the law. He does what he has to to get out of trouble. There are very few [local BLM staff] who have the backbone to stand up to the ranchers."
But Hoem maintains that while he worked for the BLM he didn't favor ranchers' interests. He does, however, seem to sympathize with them. "The ranching and farming communities are now in the minority when it comes to voting," he says. "They have been for years, but now they are in such a minority that it's hard to get things to go their way."
A whistleblower's hearing examiner dismissed Austin's grievance, saying his case was in the wrong venue. He requested reports concerning his case under the Freedom of Information Act but agency personnel only provided him with the information he had already given them, he says. They called the rest of the information about him "privileged," and told him he'd have to sue to get the a look at what the agency has on file. "The BLM doesn't want this publicized," he says.
Austin continues to fight the alleged retaliation. And while this may not be considered a high-stakes case, agency critics say it does demonstrate how the BLM can treat one of its own who goes against the company line, which seems to be: "Keep quiet, do your job and just be a good neighbor."
Austin says he's learned a lot about the underbelly of federal employment and even more about the BLM. "Fighting the government is a nightmare," he says. "They play with their own rules." He doesn't want much from the agency he says he's served faithfully for most of his adult life, except to have his old job back. "I just want to be in Twin Falls," he says.
When asked about Austin's case former BLM Director Pat Shea said he wasn't aware of it but that he would call Austin. The former director did, in fact, speak with the unhappy employee, but as of this writing, Austin's case has not received upper-level review.