The Baltimore Sun has published a commentary by Dr. Donald Soeken, founder and president of the Whistleblower Support Fund, who observes “the Ukraine controversy serves as a painful – but also very hopeful – reminder that ‘speaking the truth to power’ is often a crucial step in defending our liberties and protecting the rule of law.”
While working as a U.S. Public Health Service social worker in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, Soeken blew the whistle on forced fitness-for-duty psychiatric examinations of federal workers. Those targeted by the exams, he found, included whistleblowers.
“After reporting waste, fraud or abuse in their government departments, they’d been punished – via the exams – for speaking out against these illegal activities,” he writes.
The General Accounting Office reported that 45 percent of 2,518 Federal employees required to take fitness-for-duty exams in 1973 were found to be fit for duty (1). A study conducted by Soeken and his wife Karen in 1986 found that more than a fourth of the 87 whistleblowers they surveyed “had been referred for psychiatric or medical help.” (CQ Researcher, 1997)
Soeken decided he could not remain silent and began giving interviews to newspaper reporters. In 1978, he testified before a House subcommittee chaired by Gladys Noon Spellman (MD-Dem.) who held a series of hearings on the subject.
The hearings led to a prohibition on the exams for civil service employees in 1984; but exceptions were made for intelligence (and other individuals with security clearances), law enforcement, high-stress jobs and the military (until 1992).
His experiences turned Soeken in a different career direction–helping whistleblowers who were not covered by the prohibition on forced psychiatric exams. He described his efforts and prominent cases in a 2014 book, “Don’t Kill the Messenger!”
Soeken’s commentary concludes with some timely advice.
These days, as I read the stories about the Ukraine whistleblower, I’m reminded all over again of how important it is to defend and support our truth-tellers, who often lose their careers as a result of reporting wrongdoing. In order to assist these valiant Americans, I established the Whistleblower Support Fund (whistleblowing.us), and I frequently try to help them by providing referrals, counseling and expert witness testimony they need to survive the ordeal of “going public” with their reports of wrongdoing in public life.
If we are to continue to enjoy the liberties we cherish as a nation, we must continue to avoid the fatal mistake of “killing the messenger” – while defending the brave whistleblowers who risk everything to keep us all safe from tyranny.
(1) Legislative Review of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, House of Representatives during the Ninety-Sixth Congress, First Session (April 15, 1980)