Such was the case for T., a 38-year-old former police officer from St. Louis who signed on for the US contingent of MINUSTAH’s police division, known as the United Nations Police, or UNPOL. T. is edgy and outspoken, but also funny. She often refers to her life as The Jerry Springer Show. In Haiti, she worked for Pacific Architects and Engineers, a Virginia-based government contractor.
A few weeks before Christmas in 2011, T. met with the leaders of a refugee camp where she served as a monitor and mentor for the Haitian National Police. Located in Haiti’s capital, Camp Carradeux was one of the larger camps set up after the earthquake, accommodating more than a thousand families in makeshift tents and tarps that were never intended for long-term use. Relief workers had cleared piles of rubble from the camp, but drainage ditches meant to help with runoff from the torrential rains in hurricane season did little to stop the flooding of tents downhill: standing puddles were fertile ground for breeding mosquitoes.
Members of the group were complaining that the UNPOL were cutting back on humanitarian programs but taking advantage of the women in the camp. They gave her a note written in French, asking for a meeting with UNPOL to discuss, among other things, the “courting” of several women in the camp by one of the UNPOL supervisors–a polite way, T. says, of broaching the subject of sexual abuse. T.’s relations with her employer were already strained over earlier, unrelated complaints T. had made about the personal hygiene of other UN forces. She gave the note to her superior at PAE. She later learned that UN investigators questioned the women and ruled out sexual abuse.
Less than a month later, T. said another person complained to her about sexual assault tied to UN forces. A priest had reported that a peacekeeper from Bangladesh had dragged a cleaning woman into a bathroom by her hair. A worker who witnessed the assault ran to her rescue, preventing rape, the priest said. Again, T. passed on the information to her supervisor. By then, she says, things had deteriorated with her supervisor as well as with some of her colleagues. In an email to the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit hotline, set up to report misconduct, T. wrote that she feared for her safety. “I am complaining about some people who are in my chain of command, and I do not believe my complaint will be taken or forwarded through the proper channels,” she wrote. “I am fearful of continued retaliation for reporting this to you, but I need this to be documented because the harassment and retaliation are continuing to escalate, and in case I am physically harmed.”
UN staff member Vanessa Kent, Chief of Conduct and Discipline, reviewed T.’s email but said that she saw no incidents of retaliation. T. had a long list of complaints, including the fact that her performance evaluation for the UN, where she received poor marks in almost all categories, was done by one of the men named in the original complaint in Camp Carradeux.
T.’s complaints did not go unnoticed by the PAE staff. Three months after her reports, PAE’s contingent commander Scott Carnes wrote to the company’s deputy program manager Sean Harris that he was concerned that T.’s complaints might “bring the US police contingent into a negative light.” Harris said that he had met with T. on March 8 and wrote that she “displayed a range of emotions while describing what she considered an attack on her [b]y the UN. She vowed to ‘take them on’ promising ‘no more nice guy’ and ‘a definite TKO.’”
On March 18, 2012, Carnes sent an email blast to all PAE employees in Haiti that appeared to contradict not only T.’s training but the UN’s zero tolerance policy toward sexual abuse: “…3. Sexual Exploitation or Abuse: From the Police Commissioner and DPKO (Department of Peace Keeping Operations), if one more serious allegation of either is reported, this mission will be ended, and all of us will be on a plane for home in short order. It DOES NOT matter who the guilty party is, or where they are from, we will all be leaving. If you are unsure as to what the definition of SEA is please contact me, and also be aware that if you know of a situation and say nothing then you will be held as guilty as the offending party…”
The Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes accountability by protecting whistleblowers, was outraged by this email. In a letter to the UN ethics department, GAP’s international program director, Bea Edwards, wrote that while this email “could be interpreted as a warning not to engage in SEA, it also sends a chilling message to potential whistleblowers. If the purpose of the email was to serve as deterrence, it would have said that if one more act of SEA is ‘committed,’ then the mission would end. Instead, the email says that if one more act is ‘reported,’ the mission will end. This is a crucial difference that conveys the true intent of the email: to discourage whistleblowers such as [T.] from reporting SEA.”
One month shy of her one-year contract, T. was fired.
PAE rejects the notion that T. was terminated for being a whistleblower. In T.’s termination letter, PAE managers Harris and Reed Hennebury pointed to a UN Internal Affairs investigation that resulted in a written reprimand related to T.’s complaint about a fellow officer’s personal hygiene, failure to follow the chain of command and “ongoing behavior detrimental to the US contingent and the mission.” PAE declined interview requests for this article.
T. rolled her eyes when asked about these allegations. PAE, she said, “ruled with intimidation. They dealt with problems by turning it around to make it look like you were the problem.
“When I first brought up the allegations, which I repeatedly said was information passed on to me and for which I had no personal knowledge, they interrogated me for three and a half hours on this one incident and then acted as if I had made up this information, as if I was the suspect,” T. said. She slapped the air with her hands. “They kept repeating the same questions over and over, implying that I had ruined this guy’s reputation. When I got the initial information I wanted to investigate – I’m an officer, after all – but I knew I wasn’t allowed to. I was just following protocol and that’s what got me in trouble.”
T.’s attorney, Tom Whalen, contends that the company feared the UN would pressure the State Department to end its contract with PAE over the complaints. In 2013, PAE did, in fact, lose its $49 million contract.
Its replacement? Dyncorp, the same company that fired Bolkovac for blowing the whistle on the sex-trafficking scandal in Bosnia.
Dyncorp said that since it was contracted by the State Department, any interview request had to be cleared by the State Department, which in turn denied multiple requests for an interview, made in writing over several months.
“I tried 10 to 15 lawyers before I got Whalen,” T. said. As a whistleblower during the Viet Nam war, Whalen was sympathetic to her case. “They all wanted money, but I didn’t have money,” she said. “I didn’t have a job. I couldn’t get a job.”
For the last year T. has worked at various jobs, including as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, living with her parents and trying to dig herself out of increasing debt. “If I had it to do over again, I’d have kept my mouth shut,” she said. “PAE has destroyed my life. It’s been two years and I can’t get a job. Reporting all that stuff in Haiti was the biggest mistake of my life.”
In the US, the process of contracting peacekeepers and police is so convoluted that whistleblower protection is almost unattainable. In T.’s case, GAP’s director Edwards also wrote in her letter to the UN’s ethics department: “[A]lthough we went round and round with the State Department we can’t figure out who retaliated – was it the company, the State Department, the UN – where’s the responsibility?”
In July, GAP urged lawmakers in Virginia, where T.’s employer is registered, to improve protection for whistleblowers. The group said that Virginia has become a safe haven for companies, many of them government contractors, that retaliate against whistleblowers with impunity. In a letter, Edwards cited a study of 5,400 companies worldwide by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which found that “whistleblowers detect more fraud than corporate security, audits, rotation of personnel, fraud risk, management and law enforcement combined.” She added, “Whistleblowers have tremendous potential to protect the State of Virginia’s resources, but until Virginia passes stronger whistleblower protection, employees who are aware of misconduct and corruption involving companies based in Virginia are likely to remain silent.”