Air corps whistleblower was ‘isolated, vilified’

An air corps whistleblower has written to the Defence Forces Chief of Staff to inform him of his decision to retire early over what he has claimed is the authority’s failure to protect him.

The decision comes two months after the whistleblower wrote to junior defence minister Paul Kehoe complaining of the “unwarranted treatment” he has received since he submitted a protected disclosure on health-and-safety issues.

In this communication with Mr Kehoe, the whistleblower included signed statements from two air corps personnel, the contents of which, he said, were evidence of an attempt by those in authority to “isolate and vilify” him and turn his colleagues against him.

He is one of three whistleblowers to make complaints about the chemical exposure suffered by air corps maintenance staff, the details of which were first revealed by the Irish Examiner two years ago.

The whistleblower’s decision to retire follows the outcome of a redress-of-wrongs complaint he submitted against his commanding officer, after he learned that his superior delayed processing paperwork relating to his continued service in the air corps for nearly three years.

In his complaint, the whistleblower said he believed this failure to process this paperwork was as a consequence of his decision to submit a separate protected disclosure in 2014 about the lack of qualifications of those signing off on aircraft maintenance work.

In responding to the complaint, the commanding officer said he waited to process the documentation, as the whistleblower was on sick leave at the time of the application. He added he was not in a position to decide whether he could recommend that the whistleblower was fit to continue in the air corps.

The commanding officer further pointed to previous complaints made against him by the whistleblower, which he said constitutes “a consistent pattern of vindictive and bullying behaviour” against him.

In his concluding remarks, seen by the Irish Examiner, the officer investigating the complaint last September ruled that applications for continuance in service should be processed within reasonable timeframe and that a period of almost three years does not seem reasonable.

However, he said it was not unreasonable for the commanding officer to form the view that the whistleblower’s sick leave at the time of his application was enough for him not to recommend a continuation of service, but that he should have issued a non-recommendation, rather than leave the application in limbo.

He further said the whistleblower’s call for disciplinary action against his commanding officer was “disproportionate”, given the whistleblower continued to serve throughout the period, and suffered no loss in pay or terms as a result of the incident.

The investigating officer said relations between the two men had “broken down to a significant extent” and suggested mediation between the pair.

He also said it is “is important that [the whistleblower] be assured that he will in no way be penalised or prejudiced for having made any protected disclosures”.

“Where matters of concern are raised by any member of the air corps, they should be supported, and, where necessary, protected, for their efforts to bring about positive change,” said the investigator.

In November, the whistleblower wrote to Mr Kehoe to complain that he was receiving “continuing and unwarranted treatment” as a result of his disclosures, and attached two signed statements by named air corps personnel.

One member stated he was told he was precluded from a meeting he had arranged about outsourcing metal work to a private company because he had been seen speaking to the whistle-blower.

The other air corps member said that, last July, a flight sergeant complained about the health and safety regime that came into place since protected disclosures were made about conditions in the air corps.

He alleged the sergeant said:

You can thank [the whistleblower] for this; he is getting exactly what he wants now; we won’t be able to have any chemicals in the hanger now, thanks to him

The whistleblower told Mr Kehoe that he rejected his commanding officer’s statement that none of the whistleblower’s complaints against him were upheld.

He further said the commanding officer’s allegation that his complaints were “vindictive and bullying” were deliberate lies, “in an attempt to blacken my name and influence the outcome of the military investigating officer’s investigation”.

“It appears that, in exercising my legal right to submit a complaint against my commanding officer, in circumstances where I believe I have been wronged, is now deemed by my commanding officer to be an abuse of process, vindictive, and bullying,” the whistleblower wrote.

“I now respectfully request you, as the Minister with Responsibility for Defence, to please clarify your position on this issue.”

Three weeks later, Mr Kehoe’s private secretary replied to direct the whistleblower to submit his complaint to the Defence Forces ombudsman.

Last month, the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, in noting the findings of the whistleblower’s redress of wrongs, recognised “the quality of the investigating officer’s report, and the clear, concise and balanced manner in which it is presented.”

“This office acknowledges, and will at all times vindicate, the rights of personnel to submit grievances through the appropriate channels,” he said.

However, Vice Admiral Mellett said “no complaint, in any format, insulates a complainant from the requirement to act in accordance with military discipline”.

“I consider some of the comments made by the complainant in the course of this application to be, at best, questionable and contrary to Defence Forces values,” he said.

In informing Vice Admiral Mellett of his intention to retire this month, the whistleblower said he has yet to receive assurances that he would not be penalised or prejudiced for having made any protected disclosures, as per the investigating officer’s recommendations.

“I note that both you, as the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces and General Office commanding the air corps, both failed to provide any such assurances,” the whistleblower said.

Responding to this newspaper, both the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence issued similar statements, in which they said they “cannot go into detail, in relation to any actions being taken on foot of any individual disclosure, so as to ensure that such individual’s confidentiality is not breached”.

They said “any member of the Defence Forces who feels they were penalised, or were threatened with penalisation, for having made a protected disclosure, should bring the matter to the attention of the ombudsman for the Defence Forces”.

Both the department and the Defence Forces said “the health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a priority” and that they are “committed to compliance with the requirements of the Protected Disclosures Act, 2014, and to the protections contained in that act”.

Mr Kehoe “has made it clear to the department and the Defence Forces that the protections of the act must be afforded to those who make qualifying disclosures under the act”, according to the department.

The whistleblower said he previously submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces in 2015, is still awaiting an outcome, and believes he has continued to be marginalised since.

In January 2017, the Irish Examiner revealed how air corps whistleblowers raised concerns about maintenance staff exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. A complaint to the Health and Safety Authority prompted an investigation, after which the watchdog threatened legal action, unless the air corps implemented a series of recommendations. A year-long programme of improvements followed, after which the HSA closed its case.

Meanwhile, the State is facing 21 legal cases brought by former air corps members, at least seven of which have been taken by men who say their chronic illnesses were caused by their undue exposure to chemicals.

The Government has ruled out any investigation into whistleblower claims that inspection reports dating back to the 1990s, which raised concerns about conditions in the air corps, were deliberately destroyed.

An investigation into the whistleblowers’ other claims found that appropriate records to demonstrate the air corps’ compliance with health-and-safety standards are “not readily available”.

A decade of annual audits of the air corps by the State Claims Agency were not made available to the investigator, nor was a report that raised concerns about the safety management of the cancer-causing trichloroethylene.

The details of this report were previously revealed by the Irish Examiner. It found that there were no records to show that personal protective equipment, or training on the dangers of the chemical, were provided to staff.

It also found that work areas were not segregated and doors to adjoining areas were left open, that the workers’ tea room and meeting area were located in an adjoining area, raising the risk of food being contaminated, and that workers’ clothes could have been contaminated, as personnel lockers were located in the immediate area where the chemical was used.

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