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Whistle-Blowers Hear a Few Words of Reassurance


WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration on Friday urged government whistle-blowers to tell the truth about environmental problems in federal agencies, but also to work cooperatively.

Employees who gathered at a two-day convention to share stories of retribution and federal wrongdoing heard from four high-level Clinton Administration officials, including Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

O'Leary wants workers to know that "whistle-blower is not going to be a negative term," said Energy Department spokeswoman Mary Freeman.

"Dissent should occur openly," Assistant Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons told the conference, which was sponsored by the newly organized Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

"It is healthy to probe, to question and to criticize constructively," said Lyons, who oversees the Forest Service. But he also called on critics to "draw the line between constructive criticism, honest disagreement and rancorous dissent" and to try for better teamwork.

"We must . . . make judgments regarding how far to push a dissenting opinion," he said.

PEER founder Jeff DeBonis said the group wants to be helpful to the new Administration, but warned, "If need be we will hold the Clinton Administration's feet to the fire and make sure they stay accountable."

Also speaking Friday was Bureau of Land Management Director Jim Baca, who agreed that PEER could be "a valuable resource" for the Administration.

But it should not become a vehicle for disgruntled personnel to vent grievances, Baca said in an interview.

Among those at the conference:

-- Richard Keigley, a National Park Service research scientist who believes the agency is suppressing his scientific data that shows elk, driven into the park by hunters, are responsible for a growing crisis in overgrazing of aspen trees and other vegetation. Keigley has been reassigned to work outside his specialty. He wrote several months ago to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt through Babbitt's "campfire" system for employee complaints, but has received no answer.

-- Ben Lomeli, a hydrologist who crossed swords with his supervisors when he helped call attention to a potential depletion of water supply in the San Pedro River by development demands in arid southeastern Arizona. Lomeli kept his job but with a different portfolio. He planned to appeal to Baca again to be allowed to resume work on the San Pedro problem.

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