WASHINGTON — A Marine Corps whistle-blower says military officials are trying to force him from his job for exposing failures to deliver life-saving equipment to troops in Iraq.
Franz Gayl, a senior civilian employee, alleges a series of punitive actions that emphasize the challenges that President Obama faces if he intends to fulfill a campaign pledge to treat federal whistle-blowers as patriots instead of pariahs.
Gayl's case points to the difficulty of transforming a culture, particularly within the military, in which whistle-blowers often are viewed with contempt.
"That is going to be hard to change," said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org. "But the reality is, whistle-blowers will have an improved situation over what they've had for the last eight years."
Gayl, 52, is the target of an inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for his alleged mishandling of secret information, according to Tom Devine, his attorney. Gayl had accused the Marine Corps of "gross mismanagement" for failing to answer the call in 2005 for heavy-duty trucks that could withstand roadside bombs in Iraq.
Devine calls the military probe an "illegal bluff" aimed at punishing Gayl for ignoring his supervisors' warnings and giving then-Sen. Joe Biden and other lawmakers copies in 2008 of an unclassified study he wrote. That action prompted the Navy investigation, Devine says.
Maj. Carl Redding, a Marine Corps spokesman, denied that Gayl is a victim of retaliation.
"We don't do that," Redding said. "Taking time to retaliate against anyone is against the core beliefs of the Marine Corps."
The January 2008 study, which soon after became public, harshly criticized the Marine Corps for refusing an urgent request from commanders in Iraq for the blast-resistant vehicles.
When Gayl's study was disclosed, the Marine Corps called it a personal opinion at odds with the facts. But a subsequent audit by the Pentagon inspector general affirmed many of Gayl's conclusions.
Months before turning over the study, Gayl had been telling Biden's office and other lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Kit Bond, about what he said were serious flaws in the acquisition system that kept needed gear from getting to the troops.
As a leading Senate Democrat, Biden used Gayl's disclosures in early 2008 to hammer the administration of former President George W. Bush on its conduct of the Iraq war. Biden called Gayl a hero and urged Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, to make sure Gayl was not punished.
But now that he is vice president, Biden has not intervened.
Biden's press secretary, Elizabeth Alexander, said it is administration policy that the president and vice president "generally do not intervene in or comment on ongoing criminal investigations, personnel actions and other investigations."
According to Devine, Gayl has received poor performance evaluations that rank him in the bottom 3 percent of employees at his grade. He has been hit with a letter of reprimand, had his job description rewritten and been pressured to resign.
Before his whistle-blowing, Devine says Gayl had a sterling record and was being considered for promotion.
"What they are doing to him is shameful," said Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project in Washington.
Ed Buice, a spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said the NCIS does not discuss details of investigations while they are under way.
The Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives stepped into the case this month. The committee asked the Defense Department's inspector general to determine whether Gayl's supervisors are using the criminal inquiry as retaliation.
Gayl testified under oath before the committee in May, saying his professional life had become a nightmare since he came forward.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that reviews reprisal complaints filed by civilian government employees, also is examining Gayl's case.