There are (basically) two kinds of civilian government employees: political appointees and career public servants.
Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president, and can be fired for pretty much any reason at the President’s discretion. As such, when President George W. Bush (R) found himself embroiled in a controversy over the politically-motivated firing of a number of U.S. attorneys, I scratched my head and wondered why everybody was making such a big deal out of it. Was it imprudent and politically damaging? Yes. Was it illegal? Absolutely not. The president can fire appointees for any reason whatsoever, including petty political ones.
Career public servants, however, are different. The bureaucracy, as much maligned as it is, is supposed to be full of employees who dutifully execute public policy without regard to the politics behind them. They can’t be fired except if they fail to do their jobs. The president can’t demand that a career bureaucrat be fired, only the agency’s equivalent of an H.R. department can, and only with valid cause. Bureaucrats have whistle-blower protections as well, giving them the leeway to protect the public interest by reporting waste, fraud, abuse, and mis-management without having to fear being fired for it. They can’t divulge classified information (ahem, WikiLeaks leaker) or private personal information (e.g., military service or tax records) without clearance, but otherwise have a lot of freedom to discuss their work. After all, they work for us!
Back in November 2003, Teresa Chambers—then-Chief of the United States Park Police—expressed her concerns about staffing and funding of the department in an interview with the Washington Post. Within days, she had been suspended by the Bush-administration Interior Department. In June of 2004, she was fired.
As one would expect, Chambers appealed the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which is a panel that hears appeals from terminated federal employees. The Board finally rendered its decision today, determining that Chambers had been fired improperly and must be reinstated within twenty days. Good for her. Our federal bureaucrats must be permitted to express their concerns about the operations of our federal agencies without fear of repercussions. They answer to us, so it stands to reason that they should be allowed to let us know what’s going on.
One innocent victim: current Park Police Chief Salvatore Lauro, who will be displaced by Chambers assuming she chooses to return to her wrongfully-taken position. I am hopeful that the Department of the Interior can figure out some way to ensure that both Chambers and Lauro are properly compensated for the mess made by the previous administration.