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Eight Years After Blowing the Whistle on KBR Contract, Bunny Greenhouse Wins A Settlement

July 27, 2011 

 

Bunnatine H. Greenhouse rose from modest rural roots in Rayville, LA, to become the highest-ranking civilian contracting official at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). A few days ago, after more than eight years battling USACE and the Dept. of Justice, she finally won a hefty $970,000 settlement of her discrimination suit, a bittersweet capstone to decades of public service that made her one of America's best-known whistleblowers.

Bunny and POGO's Journalist in Residence Adam Zagorin first met in mid-2004 in the Washington office of her lawyer, Michael Kohn. Mr. Zagorin was conducting an interview for what became the first article to publicly document her story, published in TIME magazine. A statuesque woman who stands more than six feet tall (her brother is basketball great, Elvin Hayes), she explained how she had risen through the ranks, winning stellar performance reviews as she oversaw what eventually amounted to some $23 billion worth of military contracts every year.

But one day in February 2003, less than a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Greenhouse felt compelled to object to a secret, sole-source, no-compete, cost-plus $7 billion award to Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton, the giant conglomerate at one time headed by Dick Cheney, by then serving as Vice President.

That single objection changed Greenhouse’s life forever. Known as a stickler for rules, she had noted her other objections to elements of contract language directly on approval documents that she signed as part of her official oversight duties. She said it was only when she objected in the same manner on the KBR approval document that the Army began a campaign against her that eventually led to negative performance reviews, the loss of her top secret clearance and demotion from the Senior Executive Service, effectively destroying her career.

In later public testimony, Greenhouse would call the single-source, five-year award to KBR, “the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed in my professional career.”

With Kohn’s help, she pressed a whistleblower claim in federal court alleging that she was a victim of illegal retaliation. Along the way, her case drew the attention of many of the country’s major newspapers and television shows, including 60 Minutes.

But in the face of implacable U.S. government opposition, a federal judge ruled several years ago that, for technical reasons, she needed to reframe her whistleblower case in a different venue. To avoid that lengthy procedure, Greenhouse and Kohn reformulated her complaint as a discrimination case. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging race and gender discrimination. In the end the U.S. government agreed to pay her compensatory damages, lost wages, legal fees and other costs—what Kohn calls “a better financial result” than could have been achieved under the more restrictive whistleblower statute.

And then, on July 22, 2011, her 67th birthday, Bunny Greenhouse finally retired from government service.

Satisfied with the settlement achieved by his client, Kohn says the case underscores a larger point. “The time is long overdue for us to get meaningful reform of the federal whistle blower laws,” he says, “so that a dedicated public servant like Bunny Greenhouse doesn’t have to fight for eight long years to get fair treatment.”

As Bunny herself said when the settlement was announced: “This has been a long and emotionally draining experience for me. I was simply doing my job and protecting the public interest and retaliated against for doing so… Unfortunately, there are too many federal employees who are in the same boat as I was. I hope that the plight I suffered prompts the Administration and Congress to move dedicated civil servants from second-class citizenry and to finally give federal employees the legal rights that they need to protect the public trust.”


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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