Donald Ray Soeken was born in Lyons, Kansas, a small farming community, to parents with Russian and German heritage. He attended high school in Lyons and was a “hard worker” and athlete. The Lutheran church in Kansas where Soeken was “trained” was “a very conservative church and most of the time was spent on the Old Testament, and all the prophets and how they were blowing the whistle on Nineveh (Jonah 3) and all different kinds of places.” He identifies with the prophets in the Old Testament and he considers them whistleblowers.
At seventeen, Soeken left Lyons to attend Valparaiso University, a Lutheran affiliated school in Indiana, where he received a Theology degree. At some point, he realized “he was not cut out to work at a church and was more of the social work minded and wanted to help people with their lives.”
Soeken subsequently attended Wayne State University School of Social Work for his Master of Social Work, graduating in 1966. In 1967, the Vietnam war was raging, and Soeken became a commissioned officer in the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). He moved to Maryland, where he worked at a community mental health center. He then settled at a USPHS clinic in Washington D.C. In 1978 Soeken received his Doctor of Philosophy in Human Development and Family Studies.
One of Soeken’s responsibilities for USPHS was “to give psychiatric exams to federal employees if their boss sent them because they were having problems. I would interview these people and decide whether they had a disability, and it became clear after a number of months that most of the people were not mentally ill, they were basically having personality clashes, and they were mostly whistleblowers who had spoken out against things in their office, and they were being fired. The whistleblowers did not know they were being fired through the retirement system. It was easy to send these people to a mental health worker who can retire them. Most of these workers were middle level, younger people who were being put out on retirement.”
Soeken decided that this practice was wrong and began to investigate the matter. He identified a whistleblower who had been forced out without being interviewed, which he found unethical and upsetting. The whistleblower, a secretary in the Department of Transportation, blew the whistle on rampant overtime padding. She was forced to take a Fitness for Duty (FFD) exam and was improperly diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. She lost her job and received a disability retirement benefit of $300 per month. Soeken reviewed all of her personnel files and determined she did not suffer from a mental disorder. He realized that “federal bureaucrats used the fitness for duty exam as a way to get rid of employees they disliked as well as employees who tried to blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse within the government.”
Soeken watched for months how federal agency bosses used FFD exams to punish whistleblowers because it was “an easy way for managers to get rid of employees [with whom they had a conflict], something that is very difficult to do in the federal government.” Many of the individuals forced to take career-ending psychiatric exams turned out to be simply whistleblowers who were “overcome by anxiety or depression.” Soeken decided to blow the whistle on illegal FFD exams and gave several interviews to the media.
FFD exams are formal, specialized examinations of an employee. They are meant to occur when there is evidence that the employee may be unable to safely or effectively perform a defined job, and there is a reasonable basis for believing that the cause may be attributable to psychological conditions or impairments. FFD exams were never meant as a mode of discipline or retaliation against whistleblowers, but that is what they eventually turned into.
In 1975, Gladys Spellman, a U.S. Congresswoman from Maryland received multiple complaints from federal workers who said they were being forced out by FFD exams. Spellman conducted contentious congressional hearings from 1978 to 1984, with Soeken testifying on February 28, 1978. Former President Reagan allegedly outlawed using FFD exams to get rid of employees in the federal government after the hearings in 1984. Nonetheless, FFD exams turned out to be too powerful for government leaders to keep out of their bag of tricks. They refused to give up such a quick and dirty way to rid themselves of whistleblowers who threatened their careers and their agencies’ reputations.
Currently, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Section 339.301 (Authority to require an examination) states that an agency of the federal government may only order a psychiatric examination when there is “no physical explanation for behavior or actions that may affect the safe and efficient performance of the employee, the safety of others, and the vulnerability of business operations and information systems to potential threats.” The only other instance in which a psychiatric exam can be called is when it is “part of the medical standards for a position. The exam must be conducted in accordance with accepted professional standards.” However, these standards are still not being followed by some federal agencies. Government agencies are still using trumped up FFD exams to get rid of federal employees.
Soeken had a boss that supported him, and Jack Anderson, a notable journalist, had written a piece highlighting Soeken, so “he got away” with blowing the whistle, even though there were several people who harbored “negative feelings” toward him. Soeken continued working for the federal government until 1994, with most of his career at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in D.C.
Soeken blew the whistle for a second time in 1993 when he supported a patient who had a medical malpractice suit against the hospital. The lawyers for the district hospital said he was a federal employee, and he could not testify. Subtle threats were thrown at him, but he always intended to testify. This resulted in retaliation against him, with his bosses accusing him of things that “did not happen.” Soeken decided to retire in January of 1994 and then sued the government, but his suit was unsuccessful. Soeken worked for the federal government for a total of 26 years, doing 16 years after first exposing wrongdoing in 1978 — a rare feat in the whistleblower universe.
As time passed, Soeken became an expert witness for whistleblowers, and he would go to the whistleblower’s agency and “put them in their place.” Soeken stated that he is not worried when an agency comes after him because he likes to fight “the big guys.” He comes from descendants who were both tough and gentle. He also wanted to show whistleblowers how to have a life “after litigation.” Soeken stated he has helped hundreds, perhaps thousands of whistleblowers.
Soeken relates his work with whistleblowers to Daniel 3:23, where Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego are thrown into a furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. Soeken sees the whistleblower in the fire, along with the Son of God and himself holding the whistleblower’s hand. He feels comfortable in telling the whistleblower that they will be OK and come out the other side. This often means a new career has to happen for the whistleblower.
Today, Soeken, at 79 years old, no longer has a private practice and is working on a new book called Breaking the Silence, which is due to be released this fall. Soeken stated that he is still willing to take calls from whistleblowers at (301)953-7353. He has a concern that some whistleblowers are going through their battle all by themselves. Like the prophets of old, Soeken is still ready and willing to enter the furnace and face the flames with the whistleblower.