Meet Joe Carson, Tennessee's Biggest Whistleblower

DOE engineer, inspector, and career troublemaker Joe Carson makes life difficult for functionaries… and for himself

Joe Carson is waiting to learn the outcome of a federal legal appeal in which he is named appellant. If he wins, there will be no large sums awarded or giants toppled. He will simply have the agreement of a federal court that the United States Office of Special Counsel, a government agency intended to protect the interests of government workers who provoke the ire of their co-workers or supervisors, has failed to be effective. If he loses, he intends to take his case to the Supreme Court. It's difficult to say whether Carson has a preference.

"Perhaps it will result in a type of ‘truth commission' in which these Feds get to tell their stories for the record," says Carson of the prospect of a decision in his favor, "of how they tried to do their duty and were harmed by their agencies for it, because OSC did not protect them. Perhaps it will result in some measure of rehabilitation and restitution for some more egregious cases."

Carson is a busy man. He's a licensed Professional Engineer employed as a Facility Representative, or safety inspector, by the Department of Energy at Oak Ridge. Regardless of your perception of Oak Ridge, you can appreciate the enormity of the tasks related to that work. Carson is also an organizer and leader of Vols4STEM, a volunteer group that works to cultivate interest among high schoolers in science, technology, engineering, and math careers. He is leading an international campaign to compel his engineering peers around the world to accept and denounce their profession's complicity in the quest for oil in Darfur, which has helped fuel the human rights crisis there. And on any given day he has one or more cases similar to the one described above on some judge's desk, somewhere in the United States.

Carson is a career whistleblower. For nearly 20 years he's been drawing attention to work done poorly by high-tech/high-stakes government worker bees. His efforts have helped revise safety standards and even legislation. Carson's testimony was considered crucial in the passing of the act that allows the compensation of workers made sick by careers in the nuclear defense industry—over $1 billion has been disbursed in Tennessee, the largest total for any state.

Carson's years as a troublemaker have also exacted a high personal toll; from workplace reprisals to threats of dismissal to the sacrifice of time spent with his family to simple peace of mind. No matter whether Carson wins or loses a battle today, the result is always another battle tomorrow. It never ends. If the case mentioned above goes his way in the 6th Circuit Appeals Court in Cincinnati, there is no assurance that the OSC will adjust its methods.

So why does he do it?

JOE CARSON IS SLIM, tall, and bespectacled. He looks good in a cardigan. People say that Julia Child's self-conscious slightly stooped posture was to make herself seem less tall and conspicuous. There's some of that around Carson as well. There is also the weight of his days.

Carson grew up in New York City. When he speaks of cliques and suspect dealings among government workers, his vocabulary and accent are reminiscent of the Scorsese film Goodfellas. His degree is in mechanical engineering. Like many young engineers, he made his knowledge useful to the U.S. Navy and served as an officer aboard the nuclear submarines USS Phoenix and USS Lafayette. That experience would permanently affect his perception of safety-related standards among government nuclear workers.

After working for most of the 1980s in commercial nuclear power, Carson settled into the DOE's Civil Service track and was assigned to Oak Ridge. His earliest complaints against a superior involved obsolete computers and a good ol' boy network of contractors. In the early 1990s, Carson requested a modern computer to replace his inadequate model. "Spell-check took 30 seconds per word," says Carson. His request was denied for budgetary reasons. Carson observed that the budget that might have provided a new computer had been exhausted by nepotistic hiring practices that resulted in lucrative contracts for friends of his supervisor.

Carson's philosophical process in the years since has led him to the conclusion that the problem is in fact a system that enables such a supervisor to, first, manage contracts in such a way, and second, make Carson's life miserable after his complaint. Now he's trying to persuade Congress to fix the system, and asks that his former supervisor—who still works for DOE—not be named.

"My point is that DOE did not slap me around in a vacuum," says Carson. "My supervisor told me, ‘The three rules here are, if it's legal it's ethical. If we get away with it it's legal. And the only right you have as an employee is the right to seek employment elsewhere.' He said that, not in a vacuum. He's not going to say that if he doesn't know he can get away with it. Why could he get away with it? It's not just DOE. It's top to bottom throughout the Civil Service."

Carson's work as an inspector was discredited or discarded. His security clearance was threatened, the loss of which would have rendered him unable to perform the job. He was reassigned to DOE headquarters in D.C., though he successfully resisted the assignment and never actually relocated.

"The whole system turned on me in a heartbeat," says Carson. "How do you fire a safety inspector for cause? Say he can't do a safety inspection. So they're taking my reports documenting very significant safety issues and throwing them in the garbage can, to make a case that I'm incompetent.

"Had they not suppressed my safety findings, I think that some accidents that killed people might have been avoided."

Carson defended his position with new cases. His refusal to go to Washington created a new case. Meanwhile, he continued to make inspections at Oak Ridge and elsewhere and report problems; reports that were spiked and led to more whistleblowing cases. There has been no reprieve for Carson or those emotionally attached to him. He works long days at Oak Ridge and fights online all night. If you're on one of his mailing lists, you will receive his electronic missives at all hours.

Joe Carson's wife, Karen Carson, is a nurse at Knoxville Children's Hospital. She also serves on the Knox County School Board. Karen Carson says that their marriage is one of the few of which she's aware that has survived government whistleblowing.

"I only saw families destroyed," she says. "I saw so many people who had gone into battle as some sort of whistleblower, and come out alone. So I don't think there is a support system for people in my situation. Frankly, there are times when there is pressure from all sides. I've had his family and my family say, ‘Karen, you need to put your foot down. You need to draw a line.' You really can't do that with Joe. The drive in him is to do what's absolutely right. I agree with him that what he's trying to change needs to be changed. I wonder sometimes could somebody else not take up the battle for a little while?"

When pushed, it's pretty much human nature to push back. Joe Carson does not appear to be caught up in that kind of quid pro quo. Reasoning aloud, he can connect the government's institutionalized shortcomings to tacit confirmation of the behavior that leads to unreported child abuse in the Catholic church, failure to report intelligence of the sort that might have predicted the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and led to torture at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay.

The Cold War is often considered to be more or less without American casualties. Ex-submariners like Joe Carson serve as a corrective. The protracted stalemate between America and Russia made the naval nuclear deterrent seem both successful and a safe way to serve one's country. But the awareness that you've been hired, trained, and trusted to unleash enormous destructive power is ever-present throughout the crew, from commanding officers to scullery dishwashers. Karen Carson thinks the experience profoundly changed her husband.

"He definitely can be bullheaded," says Karen Carson of Joe. "I don't know if that's the motivator. I think that a lot of it is just personality make-up. Engineers are a different breed. That's part of it. But I do think that a lot of what set up the character of who Joe is was his time in the Navy; being on nuclear subs and realizing the impact of what he was doing in the world. But the Navy was much more rigid. People followed the rules and had to go by the book. That was before I met him, but he spent a lot of time out there on that sub with no communication, and I think he spent a lot of time trying to understand what his role was in the world; what the job and the mission all meant."

Joe Carson does not disagree.

"I may be a prisoner of conscience," he says, "but I can point to an objective standard.

"And that's probably why this whistleblowing happened. Because I knew what it was like to be out on my first job ready to kill 20 million people. The way I justified it is to say, this cold war is worth an expensive gamble in order to buy time in order to solve the problem peacefully. Now I'm at DOE.

"I guess at the end of the day I held my course. Was I just going to say I had my nice life? I could be a millionaire," Carson says. "At least prior to six months ago," he adds with a laugh. "I could have done this, this, or this. But I say, flip it over, Joe. I'm married to Karen. I've got three kids. OSC says they can't do oversight on my case because I'm suing them. Even though I'm suing them on behalf of these thousands of others. And there's not even a dollar involved. If I win, the judge says to OSC, ‘Follow the law and protect them.'"

FOR GOVERNMENT WORKERS, OSC fulfills a portion of the same function that the Department of Labor does for the rest of us. Memorized from years of testimony, debate, and litigation, Joe Carson explains the Civil Service's oversight system pretty clearly:

"For the first 80 or 90 years," says Carson, "Congress set up the Civil Service so that to the victor belonged the spoils, so that no federal employee had any tenure beyond when the party in control changed. Then in 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed office-seeker, and people realized the need to change to a career-based Civil Service. The Pendleton Act of 1883 set up the Federal Civil Service. Since then, the biggest change took place in 1978 with the Civil Service Reform Act. By that law, the ‘merit' principles of the Civil Service were established and codified in law. And then the process to seek relief from agency law-breaking—whether it be because I'm a veteran or I'm not a veteran, because I'm Hispanic or I'm not Hispanic, because I blew whistles or I didn't blow whistles—all the principles that should characterize the Civil Service, like being non-partisan, equal pay for equal work, etc.

"They created the Merit System Protection Board and the Office of Special Counsel and the Office of Personnel Management. Those three things replaced what had been the Civil Service Commission."

Whistleblowers are an interesting lot. In their behavior and conversation there are elements of the obsessive and the conspiracy theorist. Speaking to several of them over a short span of time can be disorienting; they are telling you, after all, of cabals at work in the nation's highest offices. Never mind that you've never heard of those offices.

If whistleblowers have a spokesmodel, it is attorney Jesselyn Radack. Radack was counsel to the FBI during the period immediately following 9/11. Agents sought Radack's advice on whether or not the Marin County Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, who had just been captured in Afghanistan, should be interrogated right away. She advised against it. Lindh was interrogated anyway, the case against him compromised, and Radack's correspondence advising patience was manipulated in ways that made her seem at fault. Although records and evidence have exonerated her, Radack left the FBI soon after the events and has since been an outspoken and effective activist.

Joe Carson is one of Radack's heroes.

"He is the dean of whistleblowing," says Radack from D.C., where she now works at the Government Accountability Project. "His actions against the beleaguered Office of Special Counsel have been incredibly important. He has worked tirelessly in pursuit of government accountability."

Dave Nolan is a Washington attorney who has worked with Joe Carson for more than a decade. He is representing Carson in the appeal currently being processed—today compiling amicus briefs—and represented him in the original case, in which a federal judge failed to grant Carson the writ of mandamus that might have changed OSC policy.

"For evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," says Nolan. "Joe is courageous and he is the exceptional whistleblower, to be able to articulate concerns in Oak Ridge, Tenn. And continue to fight through various courts while still staying employed and be able to win certain battles."

The collective gripe against OSC is basic. The law that formed the office dictated that workplace acts of reprisal (Prohibited Personnel Practices) be investigated and a report issued to the relevant supervisors and department heads. According to online records, 50,000 complaints have been registered with the OSC but no reports have been issued. So there is no sense that anyone is watching the whistleblowers' backs aside from the other whistleblowers.

"What's the story with me?" says Joe Carson. "There is none. What is different about me is that I now have the goods on the organization that was supposed to protect me. My allegations about the OSC, they connect to this American torture. They connect to the economic meltdown. They connect to the dike failure at TVA. The employees there depend on me to some extent to protect them. I, in turn, am relying on OSC to protect me.

"You have this situation where the safety monitors are also employees, and yes, you have ultimate loyalty to your employer. But if you're a safety professional you also—on paper—have a higher duty to the worker, to the public. It's a failed honor system. ‘I gotta look after my family. I don't want you to get hurt. But please understand, I gotta look after me.'"

"IT'S TOUGH," says Karen Carson of the reality she shares with Joe. "It's tough for him, I think, to find a balance now. How can he work and be a productive employee in the same organization, but still try to fix it? I can't imagine doing the job. Obviously, he's not Mr. Popular at work. I don't know how he went in every day for years. I, frankly, would have moved on.

"I think our kids are fine and I'm fine. I think who missed out is Joe. He just missed out on a lot of the joy that was also around him. He's got a good relationship with the kids. He just missed out on all the little things that were so important."

As long as he sticks to engineering and his problems associated with it, Joe Carson is all logic and linear thought. It's only when he considers his family and the greater motivation for the bulk of his actions that he breaks eye contact and becomes emotional.

"The war correspondent Chris Hedges had a bestseller a few years back," says Carson, "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. This is a force that gives me meaning, even though I'm not shooting real bullets and no one dies. You could say this is about a cause or mission that is larger than me."