Committing the Truth

After years of retaliation because she was a whistleblower, a leading Alzheimer's researcher can vouch for how poorly Arizona law protects university employees who report waste or fraud

Marguerite Kay made headlines around the world in 1996 with her discovery that Vitamin E could help stave off the crippling effects of Alzheimer's.

But during her research at the University of Arizona, the world-renowned scientist also discovered what she believes was a case of the university overcharging on grants and billing the Department of Veterans Affairs tens of thousands of dollars for work never done.

Her first discovery made her a hero. Her second, it appears, made her a pariah.

Marguerite Kay says she has been blacklisted within the scientific community by UofA administrators. She says she hopes to have her name cleared so she can leave the university and again pursue her research of Alzheimer's disease.
Marguerite Kay says she has been blacklisted within the scientific community by UofA administrators. She says she hopes to have her name cleared so she can leave the university and again pursue her research of Alzheimer's disease.

After her complaints, the university began investigating heron charges of scientific misconduct. Those original charges in 1996 were judged by investigators to be without merit, but Kay has since suffered through eight more investigations and a series of administrative actions so blatantly retaliatory and unconstitutional that one of the world's leading research biologists labeled Kay's case "the worst attack on academic freedom and example of administration fascism I have ever been witness to."

At Northern Arizona University, professors Chris Lee and Amy Brown ran into similar trouble in 1993. They had accused officials of misspending funds from the $1.6 million Cowden Endowment. And they were right, according to an internal university investigation.

In July 1995, Lee's department chairman wrote a letter to the dean of her college outlining possible "solutions" to the "Lee situation." In the letter, obtained by New Times, the chairman said he had met with the affirmative action director and the vice president for academic affairs to discuss firing or reassigning Lee or dropping the food and nutrition science program overseen by Lee and Brown.

They "all agreed termination is the best solution," the letter said, but because Lee was a tenured faculty member with a long record of outstanding performance, they worried that the "process would drag on for three to five years and with no guarantee of success."

The university fired Brown for "incollegiate behavior" and killed the nutrition program. And over the last six years, both Lee and Brown have fought through numerous hearings and court cases to restore their programs and good names.

"My life has been hell because of these people," says Lee, who, thanks to court rulings, has held on to her post at Northern Arizona. "You are destroyed for telling the truth."

In 1998, Arizona State University hired a management consultant to assess the work environment for the custodians, painters and other staff at ASU's dormitories. The consultant found the work environment to be a "sick" collection of "fear-driven fiefdoms" in which retaliation was more the norm than the exception. In response, the university fired the official who hired the consultant and, according to several current employees in the dorms, did nothing to improve the work environment.

"It's still oppressive, it's still brutal, it's still rife with fixed hires and nepotism and everything else that makes for a terrible work environment," says Dennis Howe, a longtime supervisor in the department. "And God help you if you speak up about it."

Then there are the cases of Jared Sakren and Camille Kimball at ASU, Glenn Johnson and Linda Small at UofA and several others from the state's community colleges.

In case after case, university faculty and staff who report waste, abuse or fraud run into a dizzying fusillade of negative evaluations, countercharges, demotions, investigations, hearings and rulings, all overseen by administrators who stand to gain by having the original charges and the whistleblower disappear. Many of these cases have ended up in Superior Court, costing taxpayers more than $1 million to defend administrations against charges that, in several cases, began with employees exposing misuse of taxpayers' dollars.

At the heart of the problem, many believe, are Arizona's weak public employee whistleblower protection laws. In the last eight years, under the present laws, only two of 57 public employees who have claimed retaliation for reporting waste, fraud or abuse have prevailed in their cases before the state personnel board. That's 3.5 percent.

Under the federal whistleblower protections, about 25 percent of whistleblowers win their cases.

Still weaker, many argue, are whistleblower protections in Arizona's university system. And it is through the copious loopholes in the university policies, reformers say, that vindictive administrators have been given carte blanche to retaliate against those who report abuses of power.

"Arizona's laws, especially at the universities, are a Trojan horse," says Tom Devine, who, as legal director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, was the primary author of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. "Employees expose themselves to retaliation on the mistaken idea that they'll be protected. Instead, they find themselves committing professional suicide."

Alarmed by the number of well-documented cases of retaliation in Arizona, particularly in the universities, Devine accepted an invitation to come to Arizona last year to help lawmakers craft the Arizona Whistleblower Protection Act in the mold of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. In March, that legislation, SB1512, fell a few votes short in the Arizona Senate after what bill proponents described as an 11th-hour misinformation campaign by state and university administrators and the attorney general's office.

Whispered into lawmakers' ears, for instance, was an inaccurate warning that anyone, even a legislator, could be sued personally for millions for failing to act on casual pleas from even the most crackpot of whistleblowers.

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