Blowing the whistle on government misconduct may be right and just, but as anyone who’s done it will tell you, it’s not exactly fun. Whistleblowers risk losing their jobs, careers and friends, and frequently end up mired in long court battles. So it’s especially unusual to find someone who’s done it twice.
Yet Robert McCarthy, a 55-year-old lawyer, has found himself in the unenviable position of serial whistleblower. “The last time was so stressful, I never imagined getting into this situation again,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in El Paso.
A former lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Interior, McCarthy had already been through a rough couple of years in California, serving as a key witness in a massive class-action lawsuit filed by Native American tribes against the U.S. government. McCarthy’s testimony in 2007 that the Interior Department couldn’t account for income from leases it managed on behalf of Native American landowners was crucial in winning the case for the plaintiffs.
Congress created the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989 to legally protect federal employees when they report agency misconduct. Despite those protections, McCarthy felt that his role in the lawsuit made it impossible to return to the Interior Department. He figured his days as a federal employee were over.
“I never thought I’d be hired by another federal agency again once it was known that I was a whistleblower,” he says. So he felt lucky in January 2009, when he was hired as general counsel at the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso. Whatever qualms he might have had, the promise of federally funded health insurance and retirement benefits beckoned.
The commission is a key federal agency along the border. Created in 1889, the panel handles border treaties with Mexico and operates several international dams and water-treatment plants. One of its jobs is to keep levees along the Rio Grande from crumbling. After six months at the agency, McCarthy was fired after reporting that its officials allegedly conducted secret surveillance of agency employees, altered official government records, made false reports to the Inspector General, manipulated payrolls and mismanaged $220 million in Recovery Act money for reinforcing river levees.
McCarthy says he brought his concerns to his superiors before blowing the whistle, but nothing was done. “Sure, I could have given up and done what I was told,” he says. “But when you do that, you are just as responsible for those violations.”
In September, McCarthy sued the commission for wrongfully firing a whistleblower. Now he pursues his case from his home in El Paso. His house in California is in foreclosure, he says. He never expected to be without an income for so long. The case could take months to resolve, and in a whistleblower case, the plaintiff can only sue for relief, not damages.
On the bright side, McCarthy says his wife found a job in El Paso, and the couple is enjoying their new home. “The city is great, and the people are extremely friendly,” he says. Ultimately, McCarthy hopes to get his job back at the boundary commission.
The life of a whistleblower can be lonely and difficult. “I’m working on the suit every day. It’s stressful and time-consuming,” he says. “I would say only if you are willing to lose your job and move on, should you attempt it.”