U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL WINS TEMPORARY REINSTATEMENT OF FIRED FAA EMPLOYEE WHO ALERTED THE FBI & FAA SUPERVISORS TO INFORMATION CONCERNING SEPTEMBER 11TH ATTACKS
- FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 10/18/01
- CONTACT: JANE MCFARLAND
- (202) 653-7984
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) today announced that the Merit Systems Protection Board (Board or MSPB) granted OSC’s petition to put Mr. James P. Hopkins back to work as an International Aviation Operations Specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington, DC. OSC requested the stay after a preliminary investigation of Mr. Hopkins’ whistleblower retaliation complaint. According to OSC’s petition, that investigation provided reasonable grounds to conclude that Mr. Hopkins was fired because he alerted his supervisors and the FBI to what he reasonably believed might be a link between one of the hijackers involved in the September 11th terrorist attacks and an individual who had received Aviation Security training at the FAA Academy.
Mr. Hopkins began working for the FAA in May of this year as an International Aviation Operations Specialist. He previously served as a U.S. Navy Officer for twenty years. As a Navy Officer, Mr. Hopkins served as an Intelligence Analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1987 through 1991 and was awarded a Joint Service Commendation Medal for intelligence analysis and reporting activities. He went on to serve as a Liaison Officer for the Navy with the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his superior performance in managing critical military bilateral activities between the U.S. and the governments of Korea, Australia and Japan in 1993.
According to OSC’s petition, two days after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Hopkins read a Washington Post news article that reported that at least one hijacker on each of the planes had received flight training in the United States. The article identified two individuals who were linked to passenger manifests of the hijacked planes and about whom the FBI was seeking information, Mohammed Atta, no known nationality, and Adnan Bukhari, from Saudi Arabia. Mr. Hopkins performed a search of FAA’s International Training Program database, which contains the names and nationalities of persons accepted for training at an FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. He sought to determine whether these two individuals had been trained at the Academy.
While he did not find a match for “Atta,” a match did appear for the name “Bukhari,” indicating that an individual with that surname, and also from Saudi Arabia, was trained in Aviation Security at the FAA Academy in 1991 and 1998. Mr. Hopkins took this information to his first-level supervisor with a request to pass it on to FAA Security for further inquiry as to whether the “Bukhari” in the FAA database might be a relative of the “Bukhari” identified in the Washington Post article.
Mr. Hopkins has advised OSC that his supervisor denied him permission to go to FAA Security and stated that it was not Hopkins’ responsibility to investigate the case. According to Mr. Hopkins, he told his supervisor that he had taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” and that he intended to pass the information to FAA Security, notwithstanding his supervisor’s directions.
Mr. Hopkins has alleged that when he walked over to FAA Security, he was met by his third-level supervisor, whom he advised about the Bukhari information. That supervisor told Mr. Hopkins to return to his office and that they would discuss the information and what to do with it once the supervisor returned to his own office. About thirty minutes later, Mr. Hopkins’ first-level supervisor placed him on administrative leave and sent him home.
As Mr. Hopkins was departing the building, a co-worker urged him to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Both the co-worker and Mr. Hopkins called the FBI. FBI investigators followed up with Mr. Hopkins that same day.
Ultimately, the Adnan Bukhari identified in the Washington Post article was cleared by the FBI. Nonetheless, at the time Mr. Hopkins made his disclosures, Adnan Bukhari was an individual that the FBI was questioning in connection with the attacks.
Eight days after Mr. Hopkins made his disclosure to FAA officials, Mr. Hopkins’ first-level supervisor terminated Mr. Hopkins’ employment during his probationary period. The supervisor cited what he called Mr. Hopkins’ failure to maintain a “calm and professional approach in the completion of duties, as well as evidence of sound judgment.”
Mr. Hopkins filed a complaint with OSC shortly after he was fired. After a preliminary investigation, OSC determined that there exist reasonable grounds to believe that the decision to fire Mr. Hopkins was based upon protected whistleblowing: his disclosures to his supervisors and the FBI about the FAA’s International Training database information on Bukhari that he reasonably believed demonstrated a substantial and specific danger to the public health and safety.
When the FAA rejected OSC’s request to voluntarily reinstate Mr. Hopkins, OSC filed a formal petition for a stay with the Board on October 15, 2001. Within an hour of OSC’s filing, the FAA transmitted a letter to Mr. Hopkins rescinding his dismissal. The FAA, however, did not return him to his job; instead it again placed him on paid “administrative leave status until further notice.” MSPB Chairman Slavet granted OSC’s request for a stay. She found, on the basis of OSC’s assertions, that there existed reasonable grounds to believe that the FAA terminated Mr. Hopkins during his probationary period because he made protected disclosures. Under the Board’s decision, the stay will remain in effect for 45 days while OSC completes its investigation into this matter. (Docket No. CB-1208-02-0004-U-1)
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal agency that investigates and prosecutes complaints alleging the commission of prohibited personnel practices, including whistleblower retaliation. Pursuant to statute, after it completes an investigation, OSC has the authority to seek corrective action from a federal agency on behalf of victims of prohibited personnel practices, as well as disciplinary action against agency officials who commit such practices. OSC can obtain corrective and disciplinary relief either by voluntary settlement or by pursuing a petition for such relief before the Merit Systems Protection Board.