Joe Carson, Professional Engineer (PE), is a complex human being, but so are most whistleblowers. Carson, however, has an inexhaustible supply of energy and a repertoire of knowledge concerning whistleblower law and policies that puts him in the heavyweight division of fighting federal institutions. Carson has fought on the high ground and in the weeds, and he will know when he reaches the finish line of his 30+ year battle. The end can only come when he is totally vindicated. Carson believes, to the core of his being, the two oaths he has taken: one in the Navy and the other as a Professional Engineer. Once you understand this, you understand Joe Carson.
Carson was born in Brooklyn, New York, into a lower-middle-class Irish Catholic family. It was a large family, and Carson attended Catholic school in his formative years. He attended the University of Rochester and earned a mechanical engineering degree. He was then “hand-picked” by Admiral Hyman Rickover to spend six years on a nuclear submarine in the Navy. In 1982, Carson started working in the private sector as a contract engineer at several nuclear energy plants and then joined the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1990.
In 1991, Carson blew the whistle for the first time at DOE when he brought forward the DOE practice of using paid consultants to supplement agency employees, which was designed to “milk the system.” DOE then retaliated against Carson by rejecting his safety findings. This, according to Carson, could have resulted in people dying, as the findings detailed serious workplace issues in DOE’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee nuclear facilities.
Ten years later, Carson finally received a judgment from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) Atlanta Regional Office. It noted, “The Agency (DOE) retaliated against the appellant because of his whistleblowing by taking away critical duties from his job assignments (surveillances), issuing a letter of admonishment, and by reassigning him from his home in Tennessee to Maryland. This retaliation—not unsurprisingly—resulted in illness and stress, as well as necessitated the appellant to take a large amount of time from work to consult with his attorneys and other advisors.”
By 2001, Carson considered himself a “seven-time prevailing” whistleblower. DOE line management and Carson had agreed on a tentative settlement over a year earlier. However, DOE created “pretext after pretext to prevent a meaningful settlement.” DOE compensated Carson over $400,000 for legal fees and costs, and Carson estimated they paid “well over a million for DOE’s own costs.” Carson felt that DOE attorneys wanted his family “ruined for [his] offense of putting his professional duty to workplace safety and public health ahead of [his] self-interest.”
Carson stated, “[m]y thirty-plus year whistleblowing story has essentially two parts: the first part was against DOE, the second part is against the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and MSPB.” He has raised over twenty different whistleblower disclosures since 1991, including one currently before the 6th Circuit. Carson has been actively lobbying Congress for twenty years regarding whistleblowing and whistleblower law. He believes his efforts had something to do with the law passed in 2017 when Congress reauthorized the OSC. Every federal manager and supervisor now has a critical performance element that basically forces them to create working conditions conducive to whistleblowing by their subordinates.
At 67 years old, Carson is working as a Facility Representative at the DOE. DOE, according to Carson, “[i]s a world unto itself because of the nuclear weapons mission, and my job is directly related to that.” He has not retired because he is on “a personal post-9/11 mission, and if I retire, I won’t have the same leverage to pursue it as I will after I retire.” Carson is adamant he is going to get a resolution of his whistleblower complaints.
Carson has never reached a point where he “can honorably surrender, I have never lost the means to resist, I have never faced that point. And neither have I ever felt that I have honorably been relieved so I can put this aside. So, I just man my post, that is how I perceive it.”
Carson has been married 35 years, and his wife accepts what he is doing. He has three children and acknowledges the toll and impact whistleblowing has had on his family. “Do I protect you, or do I care for myself and my family?” Carson states. “Because if I rock boats about things not being safe, DOE is going to try and run me out on a rail.”
Carson feels that “[t]he dirty little secret of the federal civil services is we abuse our conscientious employees and we do it with impunity. Help me break the spell….break the spell of this federal civil service with conscientious people getting slapped around and other people have to get the message. Had I not blown the whistle, I would be in a much different place financially. My kids would have better memories of their father than sitting at a computer typing another letter or walking around like what are they going to drop on us next? It has not been fun.” Carson has spent over 30,000 hours on whistleblowing and typed thousands of letters, noting that so far: “No one is saying I am wrong, and no one is telling me I am right.”
To Carson, the current situation for federal employees seems to be, “Finger in the wind, hand on your wallet, is it safe for me economically to say it is safe for you today?” A person was quoted as saying Carson was a True Believer in the Eric Hoffer sense. But to be a True Believer, you have to embrace evil as one part of the equation and have irrational persistence. There is nothing irrational about Carson: he is dedicated, task and goal-oriented, and perfectly able to withstand the withering criticisms, barbs and legal actions directed his way. He can easily discuss theology, philosophy, and military beliefs, and he is totally comfortable in his 6 foot 6-inch skin. His most illuminating thought was, “I became who I wanted to be.”
Carson is aware of tensions between himself and the whistleblower community. The tensions arise from the loneliness Carson feels in his quest to reveal OSC as a forty-year-old law-breaking fraud. Carson believes that no one is aligning behind him. OSC has 130 employees, but they do not have the resources to comply with the whistleblowing laws as they are written. The MSPB was created by Congress, and Carson feels “it is a Rube Goldberg mechanism.” The merit principles and prohibited personnel practices are written in aspirational language. They are more of a “you shall not” rather than “you will not,” Carson expresses.
Presently, Carson and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) are working on enlisting faith-based groups to back whistleblowers. Whistleblowers lay down their life for the common good, and Carson feels churches should embrace and support whistleblowers. To that end, GAP has established Bearing Witness, an initiative “which offers resources for faith leaders and faith communities to help those called by their faith and moral courage to speak out about government wrongdoing and abuses of power they witness in the workplace.”
Carson has supported whistleblowers in any way he can, including contributing to whistleblowers’ GoFundMe campaigns. He is now offering to provide limited financial support for whistleblowers to attend the 2021 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina from September 2-5, 2021. The Bearing Witness program will be the theme of this year’s Wild Goose Festival. Whistleblowers can volunteer at the festival to reduce admission and meal costs. If interested, contact Carson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Carson, old military veteran, and PE continues to honor those oaths he took years ago. He has no intention of leaving the whistleblower road until he finds the off-ramp identified as vindication.