The Air Force is disciplining the former commander of the Dover Air Force Base mortuary and a former key civilian aide after an investigation into retaliation against workers who blew the whistle on the mishandling of human remains, officials said Friday.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said in a report that three officials retaliated against four employees who sought to expose wrongdoing at the base that receives the remains of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report concluded that the former commander of the mortuary, Col. Robert Edmondson, was the "primary force" behind most of the retaliation.
"Col. Edmondson really had it out for all of us, he really did," said James Parsons, one of the whistleblowers.
The retaliation against Parsons and the other whistleblowers, William Zwicharowski, Mary Ellen Spera and David Vance, included suspensions, threats of firing, terminations and disciplinary letters.
One of two civilian mortuary supervisors involved in the retaliation, Quinton "Randy" Keel, has resigned from the Air Force. The OSC said the Air Force has begun disciplinary procedures against Edmondson and the other former supervisor, Trevor Dean. The disciplinary action the OSC referred to is in addition to earlier censures taken against the three in the fall.
The Air Force released a statement saying disciplinary proceedings have begun, and that it expects to complete its decisions by mid to late April. It also said it is working with OSC to make appropriate corrections to the whistleblowers' records.
"The individuals who reported the allegations in this matter performed an important service to the Air Force and the nation," the statement read.
The OSC report found that Edmondson and Keel were responsible for the vast majority of the retaliation, and that, aside from one instance, Dean was generally reluctant to take adverse personnel actions.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner also said the Air Force has committed to improving its internal investigation procedures and the way it remedies whistleblower retaliation claims.
"I am pleased the Air Force has agreed to take further disciplinary action and institute training to prevent whistleblower retaliation in the future," Lerner said.
Last November, the Office of Special Counsel issued a report accusing the mortuary supervisors of "gross mismanagement" at the Dover facility, where small body parts of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan were lost on two occasions.
The Air Force said at the time that it took disciplinary action against, but did not fire, the former mortuary supervisors. Edmondson was given a letter of reprimand, denied a job commanding a unit at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and barred from future command assignments. Dean and Keel took a cut in pay and were moved to nonsupervisory jobs at Dover.
The OSC report found that the retaliation against the whistleblowers took place in a pressure-packed environment overseen by a "forceful, autocratic" Edmondson, who believed in a strict chain of command and told OSC investigators that he considered Zwicharowski, who had served as the mortuary supervisor before Edmondson arrived at the base, as an "antagonist," "agitator," and "non-conformist."
"In context, these are synonyms for "whistleblower," the OSC report said
"There is compelling documentary and testimonial evidence demonstrating Colonel Edmondson's significant role in the actions at issue and his strong motive to retaliate," the report found.
OSC investigators noted an Air Force attorney who reviewed the proposed termination of Zwicharowski concluded in a memorandum that "it is almost certain that any reviewing authority would conclude any such discipline was reprisal/retaliation."
Zwicharowski did not immediately return a telephone message Friday.
Meanwhile, Parsons noted with a touch of irony that Zwicharowski has been participating in an online course regarding training to prevent whistleblower retaliation.
"We're part of the curriculum," Parsons said.