Alleged Race Discrimination

By Daniel Pulliam

Alleging race discrimination in hiring and advancement practices, 13 current and former employees of the Commerce Department filed a $500 million class action lawsuit Wednesday, 10 years after the first complaint was made.

The suit -- filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia -- includes 11 black and two white plaintiffs and includes allegations that employees saw recriminations after speaking out against the alleged "pervasive race discrimination at Commerce."

Approximately 60 people gathered in front of the Commerce headquarters in Washington on Wednesday to draw attention to the lawsuit. One person wore a set of yellow plastic chains around her neck and others carried signs calling for "equal pay now."

Attorney David W. Sanford of Sanford, Wittels and Heisler in Washington has represented the plaintiffs since January 2004 and plans to include all black employees who have worked at Commerce since 1995 along with anyone who believes that the department retaliated against them for speaking out against what the lawsuit describes as "systemic race discrimination" at the Commerce Department.

Sanford said he hopes the case can be resolved quickly and that a jury trial can be convened in the next 18 months.

The case was first introduced in 1995 when Janet Howard, the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity discrimination lawsuit. Howard started working for the department in 1983 and is an export compliance specialist.

"The discrimination I have faced over the course of more than 22 years at the Department of Commerce has reached epidemic proportions for thousands of employees," Howard said.

Dan Nelson, a Commerce spokesman, said he has not seen the complaint and cannot comment on pending lawsuits, but the "department remains committed to fairness in all matters related to labor and employment and to nondiscrimination against anyone on the basis of race, sex or national origin."

Rewarded for Whistleblowing

Federal Aviation Administration air traffic supervisor Anne R. Whiteman received the fifth Office of Special Counsel's Public Servant Award Thursday for blowing the whistle after mistakes that could have resulted in a midair collision were routinely suppressed.

The nonmonetary award was given to Whiteman in Dallas, by Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch.

"To me this is a perfect example of a case where a civil servant was willing to take on the establishment to protect us all," Bloch said. "We thank her for working so hard to help correct the misconduct of some of her FAA supervisors and, ultimately, helping to protect the public."

The awards program was created in 2001 by Bloch's predecessor Elaine Kaplan with the purpose of rewarding federal employees who blow the whistle on agency misconduct or government abuse.

Whiteman, an 18-year veteran, disclosed incidents of air traffic controllers at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport directing landing aircraft too close to each other about once a month over a seven-year period. The controllers' supervisors covered up these incidents and Whiteman first reported two incidents to the Transportation Department's inspector general in July 2002.

Whiteman told Government Executive that she was removed from her position in the radar room, harassed and locked in an office for reporting the incidents, and managers who flouted the rules remained on the job. Whiteman is now a supervisor at the airport's control tower and said no action has been taken against the guilty parties.

FAA officials said the incidents were anomalies and corrections were made while the agency's inspector general continues to watch the facility.