Don Young’s History Fairbanks vs. Don Young

 

Guest columns in the Anchorage Daily News

By the Whistleblowers’ and Don Young

 

THE DANGER DON YOUNG POSES TO WHISTLEBLOWERS EVERYWHERE

Anchorage Daily News (as submitted)

by Stan Stephens and Walter Parker

5/30/2000

Recently, a subcommittee of Chairman Don Young's House Resources Committee began to hold hearings on the activities of a watchdog group, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Those activities included a lawsuit filed by POGO against Mobil Oil Corporation which alleged that the oil company was shortchanging the government on royalty payments for oil leases on federal land. POGO filed the lawsuit under the False Claims Act, which allows a group or individual to sue a private company they believe is defrauding the government; the Act also grants them a portion of any fine levied as a result.

Representative Young took umbrage with the fact that POGO, upon being awarded a $1.1 million settlement in the case, paid two whistleblowers $380,000 each for their decade-long work in bringing Mobil's abuses to light. Never mind that Mobil settled the case for $45 million, all but admitting that they indeed had been stealing from the federal government for years (the lawsuit revealed that the oil industry as a whole underpaid royalties by over $300 million). That apparently didn't phase Representative Young in the slightest.

By the way, it should be mentioned that the two whistleblowers are federal employees, one of whom works for the Interior Department -- certainly not Rep. Young's favorite agency.

It is unfortunate that Representative Young has paid attention solely to the issue of the payments made to the whistleblowers. Ignored in this entire affair is the fact that the two whistleblowers saved the American people hundreds of millions of dollars. Now they are being retaliated against in the most draconian manner by Young.

Unfortunately, this conforms to the pattern that so many whistleblowers have seen before -- instead of having their allegations investigated, they find themselves the target of investigations and, in most cases, harassment and intimidation.

In February, Young issued subpoenas to POGO asking for, among other things, copies of the Executive Director's home telephone records. It is remarkably odd that Alaska's congressman, who prides himself on his patriotism and strict adherence to the Bill of Rights, would so invade the privacy of a U.S. citizen.

If the Department of the Interior issued a subpoena asking for Don Young for his home telephone records, the resulting outcry from the congressman would resound from Washington, D.C. to Fort Yukon and back again. Twice.

The recent actions of the House Resources Committee bring to mind an incident in the early 1990's that many Alaskans are sure to remember. Following the Exxon Valdez spill, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company hired a security firm called the Wackenhut Corporation to investigate a number of environmental activists, with the hope of ferreting out a whistleblower.

Wackenhut tapped telephone lines, illegally purchased bootleg copies of phone records, sifted through trash bins, and even set up a phony environmental law firm hoping to gain the trust of key individuals.

When these actions were exposed, a congressional inquiry was held in the House Resources Committee (of which Young was then the ranking minority member). The Committee rigorously denounced the actions of both the security firm and Alyeska. Young agreed then that whistleblowers who risk their careers, and in some cases their personal safety, should not suffer retaliation, harassment, or intimidation, but should instead have their allegations properly investigated. One must wonder if Young has forgotten those events of only a few years ago, now that his actions so closely resemble the very whistleblower retaliation he admonished.

Further inquiry into the POGO matter reveals that indeed Young's allegations are baseless. He condemns the payments to the whistleblowers, yet ignores that POGO sought professional legal and accounting advice on how to report the payments to the IRS. He also ignores the fact that POGO informed the Justice Department of their intention to make the payments before they did so.

Whistleblowers are a unique and integral part of exposing fraud, deceit, and malfeasance in both industry and government. Very often, they are risking ostracism from their colleagues, unjust firings or transfers, and other forms of reprisal. They deserve our support in their efforts to make workplaces safer, the environment cleaner, and both industry and government less riddled with graft and corruption.

It seems that our congressman needs once again to be reminded of that.

Stan Stephens and Walter Parker, board members of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, a whistleblower support organization and government/industry watchdog group can be reached at aferfbx@pobox.alaska.net.

 

POGO PAYMENTS DIDN'T GO TO REAL WHISTLE-BLOWERS

Anchorage Daily News,

Letter to the Editor by Don Young

May 16, 2000

The Tuesday opinion piece by Stan Stephens, Walter Parker and attorney Billie Garde was an interesting diversion to a major issue under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the inspector general of the Department of the Interior, and two congressional committees.

In their opinion, the three addressed just about every issue except what the House Resources Committee is actually investigating: payments of more than $750,000 by a private advocacy group to two federal employees.

The Project on Government Oversight, a so-called government watchdog organization, paid two federal employees $383,600 each from an oil settlement. When these payments were publicized by the media in early 1999, POGO officials claimed the payments were actually "public service awards." However, in our May 4 hearing, not one POGO board member would testify under oath who had authorized these so-called public service awards.

To the contrary, committee investigators and the Department of Justice have uncovered written agreements between POGO and the two employees that clearly indicate that the initial payments of $383,600 were not "public service awards." In fact, if the first payments had not been publicized, forcing POGO to immediately stop all financial transactions, the two employees would now have received $2.8 million from their secret agreements.

Why would POGO claim these payments were public service awards? Why has one of the federal employees sought protection under the Fifth Amendment when questioned under oath? Are these the actions of true whistle-blowers? This is what is under investigation.

In addition, investigators are examining whether a POGO board director who orchestrated the payments to the federal employees also was able to benefit his own law firm and other personal friends with information from the two federal employees.

These are issues the Department of Justice, my committee and others are investigating. This is quite different from the scenario presented by Stephens, Parker and Garde.

The real whistle-blowers in this case are two former oil workers, John Martineck and J. Benjamin Johnson Jr., who filed the original False Claims Act suit against the oil companies in 1996 and paved the way for the recovery of hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. government. These are the two people most responsible for outlining the oil companies' royalty underpayments, not POGO or the two federal employees who are benefiting from their unusual agreement.

Payments of any size to federal agency policy advisers are wrong. When given by groups with an agenda, payments corrupt decision making. At the very least they are unethical, and at most they are illegal. The foundation of federal employee ethics rules is that any kind of payment is wrong.

It's also unfortunate that POGO has seriously jeopardized the U.S. government's case against the oil companies by paying the employees. If the federal employees had put their own names on the suit instead of POGO's name, the Department of Justice would have forced them to stop all on-the-job activities related to the litigation and underlying oil royalty policy.

Instead, the same federal employees who took the payments wound up advising Justice to assist the lawsuit, which later benefited the employees financially. One of these federal oil policy officials was placed on the witness list for the lawsuit, all the while having a secret stake in the outcome of the important litigation for the United States. This clandestine relationship and agreement diminishes the legitimacy and potential recovery from this case for the taxpayers.

Government employees should never be silent partners of anyone or any group. We cannot accept the notion that POGO can make an agreement with two federal oil policy employees to split the proceeds of an oil royalty lawsuit affected by government decisions. If we do accept it, then oil companies, mining companies, trade associations, and liberal and conservative activist organizations can have the same type of secret relationships with federal employees.

Imagine what Stephens, Parker and Garde would say if it were an oil company making the payments to federal employees instead of their friends at POGO.

PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT RESPONSE TO DON YOUNG

Anchorage Daily News,

Letter to the Editor from Project on Government Oversight

May 22, 2000

Representative Don Young makes so many false and misleading statements in "POGO Payments Didn't Go to Real Whistle-blowers," it is impossible to address them all in this format. Before responding to the most egregious ones, it is important to point out that Representative Young has chosen to use his position as Chairman of the House Resources Committee not to investigate the major oil companies and how they underpaid federal and state oil royalties, but rather the Project On Government Oversight, a small, non-profit public interest organization, and two government whistleblowers who helped expose this taxpayer rip-off. Representative Young has decided to investigate POGO's decision to share a False Claims Act settlement with two whistleblowers not because he is interested in finding the truth, but because he wants to chill efforts to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse and further the interests of his primary campaign financiers -- the major oil companies. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Young was in fact the biggest recipient of oil campaign contributions over the period 1987-1998 in the entire House of Representatives.

In Representative Young's campaign to disparage POGO, he alleges that POGO made "secret agreements" and entered into a "clandestine relationship." Here are the facts: In 1996, POGO approached two government whistleblowers to join a lawsuit to help the government recover millions of dollars in oil royalty underpayments. Although they legally could have joined, they declined for fear of retaliation, a real life problem for many whistleblowers as recently documented in the movie, The Insider. POGO, however, told the whistleblowers that if we ever won our lawsuit, we would share our portion of the recovery with them. And, in 1998 when Mobil Oil settled the lawsuit for $45 million with the federal government, we collected $1.2 million.

Before making the awards and to ensure that the awards were legal and proper, POGO consulted its attorneys and accountants and filed forms reporting the awards to the IRS. In addition, POGO notified the Justice Department. Telling the IRS and Justice Department about the awards is not what most people would consider trying to keep something "secret."

Representative Young asserts that none of POGO's board members would testify as to who specifically had authorized the awards. The fact is that POGO's board testified that they were fully aware of and supported the public service awards. There was no controversy and no dissent within the board.

Despite Representative Young's crocodile tears that the ongoing lawsuit against Shell, Exxon and Unocal was "seriously jeopardized" by our decision to share the recovery, the Justice Department testified, "We firmly believe that the integrity of the underlying case was in no way compromised." In addition, the Justice Department has stated that the two whistleblowers "were not, and are not, to be called by the plaintiffs as witnessed in the trial of this matter."

In one of Mr. Young's bolder departures from the truth, he suggests that a POGO Board member financially benefitted from our decision. No one at POGO or on its board financially benefitted from the lawsuits, or our decision to share the recovery. We did not ask for or receive any information or actions in exchange for the awards to the whistleblowers. Our motivation was simply to reward two men who had risked their careers for the greater public good.

The real story of government wrongdoing here has been POGO's treatment at the hands of Rep. Young and members of his committee. Representative Young sought to subpoena the Executive Director's home phone records and the organization's office phone records. POGO's refusal to comply (to protect the identities of hundreds of whistleblowers) was defended by over 100 non-profit, civic and religious organizations. Moreover, by issuing subpoenas and having witnesses sworn in, Representative Young is conducting an "investigative" hearing, according to the rules of the House of Representatives. But to avoid the protections afforded witnesses under those rules (created in response to hearings of the infamous House of Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s), Representative Young claims he is only holding "oversight" hearings. Representative George Miller, the ranking member of the Committee, expressed his outrage stating pointedly, "I believe that the rights of witnesses have been abused in the process of this hearing."

As a result of lawsuits filed by POGO and others, oil companies have already settled with the federal government for $300 million and the state of Alaska for at least $3.7 billion. However, as Representative Carolyn Maloney has stated, "This subcommittee [holding hearings on POGO] has never held a single hearing to investigate the billions of dollars that oil companies owe the American taxpayer, but now is wasting the taxpayer's money to pursue a variety of groundless and unsubstantiated allegations."

It is unfortunate that Mr. Young can't believe that money can be given away without expecting something in return. Perhaps that is the way Representative Young is accustomed to doing business in Washington. We are not, but we are ever hopeful that one day Representative Young will defend the true interests of America's taxpayers by holding real oversight hearings into the oil industry's underpayments of royalties.

 

 

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