Pick up a newspaper or flip on the evening news, and the odds are high that you’ll soon find yourself caught up in the breathless story about the identity of the “Ukraine whistleblower” who filed a complaint with the U.S. Intelligence Inspector General alleging inappropriate behavior by the president, leading to the ongoing impeachment inquiry. So far, the person’s name is a closely guarded secret.
For this mental health worker, a veteran whistleblower whose story was told a few years back in both The New York Times and Parade Magazine, the Ukraine controversy serves as a painful — but also very hopeful — reminder that “speaking the truth to power” is often a crucial step in defending our liberties and protecting the rule of law.
Back in the late 1970s, I was a youthful and idealistic Ph.D. social worker for the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C. One of my duties was to help treat and evaluate federal workers who were struggling with mental problems such as depression and PTSD.
Among my patients, I sometimes treated federal employees who told me they had experienced conflicts with their bosses — and had then been ordered to undergo forced psychiatric fitness-for-duty exams that were conducted by government and private psychiatrists.
On other occasions, I discovered that federal employees who’d been required to take the fitness exams were actually whistleblowers. After reporting waste, fraud or abuse in their government departments, they’d been punished — via the exams — for speaking out against these illegal activities.
In one especially egregious case, a secretary who’d blown the whistle on rampant overtime-padding at the Department of Transportation was required to take a forced exam conducted by an in-house psychiatrist. Without even interviewing the secretary, the psychiatrist had diagnosed her as a “paranoid schizophrenic” — a medical diagnosis that caused her to lose her job and go on disability retirement with a miserly $300-a-month benefit.
After several months of watching how federal agency heads were using these forced exams to punish whistleblowers, I decided that I could not remain silent.
For more than a year, I blew the whistle on these illegal exams, while giving numerous interviews to newspaper reporters. As a result, I wound up sitting in front of a congressional committee led by then-Maryland Democratic Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman, who chaired the Post Office and Civil Service Committee on Capitol Hill.
On Feb. 28, 1978, I answered the committee’s questions about the forced fitness exams in careful detail. What followed was a long and bitter national debate about their legality.
But the struggle paid off in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan finally signed the bill that made the forced exams illegal and thus ended the practice for keeps.
These days, as I read the stories about the Ukraine whistleblower, I’m reminded all over again of how important it is to defend and support our truth-tellers, who often lose their careers as a result of reporting wrongdoing. In order to assist these valiant Americans, I established the Whistleblower Support Fund (whistleblowing.us), and I frequently try to help them by providing referrals, counseling and expert witness testimony they need to survive the ordeal of “going public” with their reports of wrongdoing in public life.
If we are to continue to enjoy the liberties we cherish as a nation, we must continue to avoid the fatal mistake of “killing the messenger” — while defending the brave whistleblowers who risk everything to keep us all safe from tyranny.
Donald R. Soeken is the U.S. Public Health Service social worker who blew the whistle on forced fitness-for-duty psychiatric examinations of federal workers and helped to eliminate these illegal exams by testifying before the U.S. Congress. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.