ADVOCACY:

'Being disliked, but feared' is swaggering group's ambition

The federal Merit System Protection Board reinstatement this year of U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers was a landmark victory in the annals of whistleblower protection law and a crowning achievement for Chambers' legal team at the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

But PEER executive director Jeff Ruch is the first to admit his group's mission of "protecting employees who protect our environment" is not necessarily best served through drawn-out legal battles like the seven-year Chambers case.

"Talking people out of blowing the whistle is one of the best things we do," Ruch said in a recent interview.

PEER prefers to accomplish its mission by allowing public employees to use the organization to anonymously expose wrongdoing they come across in their work, he said. Often it is through document leaks or tipping off PEER as to where to direct its frequent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The organization's goal is to use an agency's own documents and internal communications to shine a light on issues while at the same time keeping a concerned public employee on the job and protected from the perils that can often come with whistleblowing.

But despite high-profile achievements like its successful effort in 2007 on behalf of U.S. EPA librarians to reopen closed agency libraries, PEER's tactics occasionally open it to criticism from agency officials who say the watchdog group is more interested in throwing bombs than solving problems.

Criticism does not bother Ruch.

"If we can be an effective boogeyman of 'You better do right or we'll call in those assholes from PEER,' then we've done our job," he said while sitting in his Dupont Circle office surrounded by memorabilia from his many environmental battles.

Among Ruch's mementos is a photo of Chambers on the day she was sworn in as park police chief. Chambers -- who lost her job after talking to reporters about how staff shortages endanger park visitors -- is flanked in the photo by two George W. Bush administration officials who were involved in her 2004 dismissal.

Chambers had given the picture to Ruch on the day she cleaned out her office. Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who is in the photo, had signed "Chief -- Thanks for your great leadership."

Ruch made sure the photo was in the room when he took depositions from government officials in the Chambers case.

"Being disliked, but feared, is really kind of the attitude we want," he said.

Winning cases fill coffers

Although founded in 1992 as an organization for whistleblowers, PEER's advocacy for anonymous agency employees has today become its niche and helps set it apart from other Washington, D.C., environmental groups.

"PEER is sort of like the Elliot Ness of the environmental community," said Rob Perks, a deputy program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council who spent three years at PEER in the late 1990s.

PEER "is really about ... 'Back off and let these employees do what they do,' and they take on incredible forces in doing that," Perks said.

At the outset, PEER was almost entirely run through foundation grants. Today, grants still fund a majority of the group's efforts, but the group's legal operation brings in enough money to fund about 30 percent of the $1.3 million needed to run the group's D.C. headquarters and seven regional offices. For example, after the Chambers victory, PEER received a check for $675,000 from the Department of the Interior to cover its legal fees. And updates to the FOIA law in 2007 have made it easier for PEER to collect attorneys' fees when those cases go to court.

Another 10 percent of the group's funding comes through membership dues and donations.

Although it is currently involved in a dozen enforcement suits against the government, another 10 whistleblower matters and a FOIA effort that submits about one request every third week, Ruch described the group's work as simply an exercise in transparency.

"When the agency is dysfunctional and doing things they shouldn't do and for the most part doesn't want people to know about, that's when we go in," he said. "The agency is forced to confront what they thought was going to remain behind closed doors."

PEER calls it "anonymous activism," and the best symbol of its work can be found in the one piece of apparel the group sells on its website: underwear, with the words "undercover activist" written across the back side.

"PEER boxer shorts are the apparel undercover activists can wear in the office!" the site proclaims.

When it comes to PEER's involvement in, say, the environmental impacts of rebuilding of eroded beaches in Florida with dredged material (which was the subject of one release last week), the group relies on concerned agency employees their scientific and subject matter expertise.

"We don't have staff scientists," Ruch said. "We don't really have experts. We're experts in agitation."

That last statement brought quick agreement from several current and former agency officials who have tangled with PEER over the years.

Attention-grabbing press releases

An example of PEER's fondness for stirring the pot can easily be found in an eyebrow-raising press release from early April.

Entitled, "Gulag EPA: Report Finds Discrimination Meltdown," PEER went for shock value in equating the agency's Office of Civil Rights with Soviet-era forced labor camps.

PEER based its press release on an EPA-commissioned report that was highly critical of the civil rights office, but one agency official said he thought PEER lost credibility in trying to write a memorable press release.

"We're accustomed to the fact that there are going to be folks, and there should be folks, outside the agency who are keeping an eye on what we're doing," the official said. "I just think there's a difference between the way that some folks do it and the way PEER does it. ... I think taking ammunition and throwing bombs is very different from taking ammunition and trying to get problems solved. And it's not always clear that that's what [PEER's] focus is."

One former agency senior manager who had several run-ins with PEER over the years said the problems that are brought to the watchdog group are often brought by a small minority of employees while the rest either do not have a problem or choose to handle their concerns through more appropriate channels inside the agency. By going to PEER, the former manager said, some employees may not realize the collateral damage they will cause or the time that can be wasted in trying to set the record straight.

One high-profile incident that backfired on PEER came in late 2006, when the group issued a press release criticizing the fact the Park Service had yet to conduct a promised review of its approval for a book sold in the park visitor center that offers a creationist view of the formation of the Grand Canyon.

PEER began its release by saying, "Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees."

That accusation touched off a firestorm after the Park Service categorically denied that any gag order was in place and noted that rangers are fully instructed to describe for visitors the geological science that indicates that the Grand Canyon to be somewhere between 5 to 6 million years old.

PEER eventually issued an updated release that removed the inflammatory first sentence. Ruch said this week that that was the only time he remembers having to take such a step in his 15 years with the group.

But Ruch does not apologize for drawing attention to what he still believes is a serious example of the Park Service abdicating its responsibility to come up with a coherent policy.

"You're doing a press release so you're trying to draw media attention," Ruch said. "So what's the point of doing a press release if nobody picks it up? ... You have to explain why this translates into a matter of some public interest."

The former senior agency manager said the group's desire to simply make headlines is a big reason why it was viewed as more of "an extreme frustration" rather than a constructive environmental watchdog.

"When you're trying to manage a large organization in the federal government, it's of no benefit to have someone constantly stirring the pot and that's exactly what they were doing," the manager said

Still the former manager did not dismiss all of PEER's work.

"At times they do unearth some legitimate problems, but that occurs in maybe 5 percent of their issues," the manager said. "The rest of the time the government has to put up with their tactics and the collateral damage they cause in other areas."

But if PEER is an irritant to federal managers, Ruch said he is proud his group is an equal opportunity pest.

'Obama Watch'

While there was abundant optimism among environmentalists in 2008 that public employees working on environmental and public health issues would be better off under the Obama administration than they were under the George W. Bush administration, PEER began taking on the new administration even before President Obama was sworn in.

In December 2008, the group issued a release on "Why Lisa Jackson Should Not Run EPA." The release decried Jackson's "disastrous record" as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and chided her for embracing policies in New Jersey that echoed the practices of the Bush EPA.

Four months later, PEER was already hitting Obama for his failure to improve whistleblower protections despite pledges to do so during the presidential campaign.

Today the group runs a separate section of its Web site called "Obama Watch" with the tag line "Change We Still Need."

As a nonprofit 501c(3) group, PEER is prohibited from engaging in political activities, so Ruch said he could not offer an opinion on Obama's upcoming re-election campaign. But he was more than happy to discuss the administration's environmental policy -- or what he sees as a lack thereof.

"I don't think they really have an environmental policy," he said. "They have an energy/environmental policy and so environment is a handmaiden to an energy strategy. ... On a lot of these issues I think the Obama people view environmental concerns as a bargaining chip and if the environmental concerns win or lose, it's because they have been lucky at the political gaming tables, not because there's any sort of overall concern or priority or strategy."

Ruch is particularly critical of the administration's efforts when it comes to drilling. After the White House announced an ambitious interagency plan to accelerate the permitting of exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean and in the National Petroleum Reserve, Ruch noted that Obama has now pushed four different offshore drilling plans in less than three years in office.

"Somebody asked what's the difference between Obama on this issue and [former Vice President] Dick Cheney," Ruch said. "My answer? At least Dick Cheney was decisive."

But Ruch does give the Obama administration some credit for the steps it is taking toward protecting scientific integrity.

Last December, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released guidelines aimed at ensuring that government scientists' work is not altered for political purposes. Since then, only Interior has issued a final policy, but OSTP has said that every major agency is moving forward with creating their own policies.

"The scientific integrity stuff is like a whole new body of law being created," Ruch said. "It's like a volcanic creation of an island of law that heretofor didn't exist. ... We often said the reason the Bush admin could manipulate science so routinely is because there were no rules against it."

Ruch said the effort, despite its numerous delays, is nevertheless exciting for PEER because the group often deals with scientists whose work has fallen outside of legal protections.

"These rules are right on the verge of protecting scientific information, giving it legal status," he said. "It's empowering the pencil pushers."

And that's what PEER is all about.

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