The U.S. Department of Labor will pay former OSHA official Bob Whitmore $820,000 -- one of the largest federal whistleblower settlements ever approved -- under a deal that will end his four-year fight against the government.
The settlement represents a major victory for Whitmore, who says he was fired because he publicly criticized his agency for allowing companies to underreport workplace injuries.
Whitmore, formerly OSHA's top official for record keeping, was fired in 2009 after speaking to Charlotte Observer reporters who were investigating dangerous conditions and workplace injuries in the poultry industry.
"I think Bob paid a very big price for people injured in the workplace," said Robert Seldon, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who represented Whitmore. "The government paid a bigger price with a landmark settlement.
"There are people who are not going to get killed or injured in the workplace because of Bob Whitmore."
Whitmore, who worked for the federal labor department for 37 years, filed a complaint against the agency under the Whistleblower Protection Act, a 1989 law designed to protect whistleblowers who report misconduct by federal agencies.
Under the settlement, approved Wednesday by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), Whitmore agreed not to seek employment with the federal labor department for 15 years.
"I regret that I'm not going to get the opportunity to finish what I set out to do," said Whitmore, who will turn 66 on Thursday. "That will bug me."
But Whitmore said he hopes his settlement will encourage other prospective whistleblowers.
"Hopefully it will give people who are contemplating this courage to go forward and do the right thing," he said.
Whitmore contended OSHA wanted to silence his criticism and stop his push for a more aggressive approach with employers who underreport workplace injuries.
In years past, OSHA's leaders pointed to declining injury rates as proof of the agency's success.
But in interviews with the Observer -- and in a later congressional hearing -- Whitmore alleged that OSHA has allowed employers to underreport workplace injuries.
His comments were included in a 2008 Observer series, which showed the human cost of bringing chicken and turkey to America's dinner tables and illustrated how one N.C. poultry company masked the extent of workplace injuries.
OSHA contended that it dismissed Whitmore because he made colleagues feel unsafe at work.
In 2007, he got involved in a confrontation with a supervisor who he contended spit on him. When the supervisor attempted to close the door, Whitmore stuck his foot in the way and said that if he ever spit on him again he would "knock him into the basement."
A Labor Department spokesman declined comment Wednesday, saying the agency does not publicly discuss personnel issues.
A win for whistleblowers
The settlement follows a 2012 ruling by the U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which Judge Jimmie Reyna called Whitmore a "bona fide whistleblower." That ruling vacated an earlier decision by the MSPB, which had upheld Whitmore's dismissal. Judge Reyna argued that the board had ignored or overlooked evidence to support Whitmore's contention that he was fired out of retaliation.
The MSPB hears complaints from federal employees who feel they have been unfairly treated or fired. In the large majority of complaints, the board has ruled in favor of the federal agencies.
The Circuit Court's decision on the Whitmore case "significantly helped" federal employees who claim they faced retaliation for whistleblowing, said Carolyn Lerner, who heads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency responsible for protecting government whistleblowers.
"It made clear that the government faces a steep legal burden when trying to defend such retaliatory actions and it also ensured the whistleblowers have a fair opportunity to rebut the government's defense," Lerner said in a statement Wednesday.
Some whistleblower settlements are confidential, so it's not always clear what the federal government agrees to pay out in such cases. But Seldon, the attorney for Whitmore, said the largest previously disclosed settlement appears to be the $755,000 that the Securities and Exchange Commission agreed to pay out to Gary Aguirre, a lawyer with the agency who was fired in 2005.
The size of the Whitmore settlement will likely get the attention of many federal officials, said Paula Dinerstein, a lawyer who has represented Whitmore through much of his fight.
"It sends a message to employers: Retaliate against whistleblowers at your peril," said Dinerstein, senior counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit that advocates for government workers.