WASHINGTON – The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has found a ‘substantial likelihood of wrongdoing’ by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who failed to provide a safe workplace for employees at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland after members of the American Federation of Government Employees filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency.
In May, three USDA employees who hold leadership roles at AFGE Local 3147 filed a whistleblower complaint with OSC, disclosing that leadership at the research center had put workers at risk and undermined their scientific experiments by failing to properly maintain the worksite.
On June 29, OSC said it had found a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” by the agency and ordered USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to conduct an investigation into the AFGE members’ allegations and report back to OSC within 60 days.
“OSC does not refer whistleblower disclosures to agency heads for investigation unless it has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing. This is a validation to employees that their concerns have been heard, and that USDA will be required to conduct a full investigation into why the agency put the health and safety of its own employees in jeopardy,” said AFGE Assistant General Counsel Ward Morrow, who represents the employees in their complaint.
The whistleblower disclosure filed by AFGE Local 3147 President Claudette Joyner, Vice President Ashaki “Teddi” Mitchell, and Secretary Linda Seemann documented how USDA’s Agricultural Research Service had failed to adequately maintain the center’s buildings and structures, resulting in an unsafe and deteriorating work environment for employees and the loss and improper handling of scientific equipment, research, and data.
Years of building neglect came to a head after the building experienced a major flood in December that damaged equipment and resulted in asbestos and mold contamination. Nevertheless, employees were directed to enter the building afterwards to retrieve items without being provided proper safety equipment.
USDA announced it was shutting down the building to make repairs only after AFGE local leaders filed the OSC complaint.